Garden Variety: Growing plants can be good for mental, physical health

photo by: Associated Press

THERE ARE MANY TYPES OF GARDENING that can fit a variety of interests, opportunities and skill levels. From flowers to herb gardens, fruits, vegetables and full-on landscaping, one common theme seems to be the way it makes gardeners feel.

Gardeners are from all walks of life and have interests ranging from indoor tropical plants, food (fruit and vegetable) production, native plants, pollinator and wildlife habitats, traditional lawns and landscapes, and any combination of those. The arrival of the new year is the perfect time to try some segment of gardening for the first time, or for those who already know the joys of growing plants, consider trying something new. The mental and physical benefits of gardening are what make this a lifelong hobby or vocation for many people.

To get started gardening, consider current interests, living conditions (apartment vs yard, etc.), what would be most fun to grow and how much time can be devoted. For most people, time and space are the limiting factors but are not prohibitive.

For first-timers especially, start small – get a few indoor plants, plant a few pots of herbs in the spring, build one small raised bed for vegetables, or plant a few flowering shrubs and flowers to brighten the yard. Often, people jump in by planting an expansive landscape or garden or by purchasing more tropical plants than fit in their sunny window. They end up overwhelmed and disappointed. Remember that gardening is about growing and that can always be done over time. Concentrate on small successes first, then expand and get more plants as comfort is gained.

Why do gardeners enjoy gardening so much? They say there is something about seeing plants grow, watching them produce beautiful flowers and fruit, feeling the connection to nature, having their hands in the soil, eating the first vine-ripened tomato in the summer, and watching butterflies and hummingbirds work from bloom-to-bloom.

What gardeners might not mention is how gardening relieves stress. This is one mental benefit that researchers have tried to quantify and is probably related to some of the things listed above. In a 2010 study in the UK, researchers subjected participants to a stressful task, then had them either work in the garden for 30 minutes or read for 30 minutes. The group who gardened had significantly lower cortisol levels than the reading group and self-reported greater increase in mood.

In that study, gardening was outside, and reading was indoors, so the changes might have been influenced by sunlight, Vitamin D, and fresh air as well as the gardening.

Air purification and oxygen production are often touted as benefits of indoor plants since plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. A decades old study also claimed that houseplants filtered air (although it recommended 2 to 3 large plants per 100 square feet for maximum benefit). The study has since been disputed, and claims have been made that the amount of oxygen being produced by a few houseplants is negligible. Despite the dispute, most gardeners will tell you the air seems fresher and smells better around their indoor plants.

Exercise is a great physical benefit that gardeners may also forget to mention. The amount of physical activity a gardener gets from working with their plants depends again on the type of gardening that is being done. Digging, mowing, mulching, planting, raking, and weeding are a few gardening activities that require serious physical work.

Exercise and physical activity from gardening is up to the gardener. For those who are looking for a workout, there are plenty of options. For those who are limited in movement or who are looking for relaxation over hard labor, keep it simple. Garden in containers, have beds built at an accessible height, and/or hire out the heavy jobs.

Healthier eating is another physical benefit of gardening when food crops are grown. Multiple studies of youth gardeners have shown evidence that they are more likely to try new fruits and vegetables and consume more produce on average than their non-gardening counterparts. Adults might do the same, although they tend to talk only about how good it tastes.

Why do gardeners rave so much about the flavor of homegrown and community-grown produce? Freshness certainly plays a role if eaten right after harvest. There is also some sort of mental component of knowing the labor involved in production and the anticipation of watching the fruit or vegetable grow and ripen. On a deeper level, food production provides a sense of self-reliance and accomplishment.

Gardening, like any other interest, hobby, or vocation, also fosters friendships and connections. There is a sense of unspoken understanding among long-term gardeners about the desire to cultivate and watch plants grow.

For those who enjoy it, mental benefits can be expanded by researching different plant types, drawing out garden plans, calculating space and quantities of plants and seed, scheduling planting dates in accordance with seasons, keeping garden journals, and sharing accomplishments with family, friends, garden clubs, social media, etc.

• Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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