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Weeding Your Way to Better Mental Health

Gardening reflects the most rewarding elements of this cycle of life.

Key points

  • Gardening has a positive effect on well-being, and the results seem to be enhanced when the gardening is communal.
  • Gardening may also be a therapeutic intervention for disorders such as cognitive impairment.
  • Repetitive tasks like watering and weeding may help prevent people from focusing on their problems or sources of stress.

A community garden a few blocks from where I live has a sign on the fence surrounding the flower-filled plots announcing its origin during the Second World War: “Growing food to help our troops.” The garden is owned by the city, but volunteers oversee its use and help those who have never gardened before. Most plant flowers, but sometimes plots are filled with vegetables. There is a waiting list for plots, especially as the neighborhood is filled with apartment buildings and houses with miniscule yards that are too small for much horticulture.

Making more land available for additional community gardens does not have a high priority in "land use" planning, but perhaps it should. The benefits of a place where people can congregate to grow their tomatoes or tulips go beyond the pleasure of eating personally-cultivated vegetables or putting roses in a vase at home that come from one’s own rosebush.

There is a growing (pardon the pun) perception that gardening, especially community gardens, may have an important benefit on general well-being, and specifically on elevating depressed mood. This was suggested in an article in Forbes describing the benefits of getting one’s hands dirty by digging in a garden, although the reasons for the elevation in mood are rather dubious. The writer references claims that inhaling microbes in the soil stimulates serotonin production, which leads to happiness and relaxation. Given what might be lurking in the soil, especially if animals are around, one is probably advised to avoid swallowing or inhaling anything in the soil. Moreover, serotonin is made only after eating foods that result in the production of the amino acid tryptophan, i.e., carbohydrate-rich foods. So the claims that mucking about in the dirt is going to increase serotonin are about as believable as assuming that no neighborhood bunnies or deer will eat your plants.

However, the writer is correct about the positive effect of gardening on well-being, and the positive result seems to be enhanced when the gardening is communal. A study in Singapore looked at measures of well-being among individual and community gardeners versus non-gardeners who engaged in other outdoor activities. The subjects rated themselves on measures of subjective well-being, stress, and resilience (self-esteem and optimism). The community gardeners scored the highest on these indicators of well-being, suggesting the benefits of a community garden in an urban setting, according to the authors.

Gardening may have a positive effect on mood that goes beyond improving a sense of well-being. Therapeutic gardening as an adjunct to other mental health interventions was tried in therapeutic institutions in Europe and the States as early as the 1800s. According to this review, gardening has been used as a therapeutic intervention for disorders such as cognitive impairment, as well as for children and adults with mental health problems, children and adults with learning disabilities, and adults going through physical rehabilitation. The gardening experiences ranged from passively looking at a garden to actively planting and weeding. Although these activities seem to be beneficial, the positive effects have been hard to prove in clinical studies because it has been difficult to measure their effects against other interventions. For example, would spending time in an art studio or a carpentry workshop, creating objects with one’s hands, be as beneficial as weeding or planting? And as the authors have found in their review of the literature, there seem to be no lasting effects once the gardening season is over.

A more optimistic picture emerges from yet another review of published studies. The studies cited were geographically varied, although about one-third were carried out in the United States. The overall conclusion from these studies is that gardening seems to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress, increase physical activity, and enhance a sense of community. Both private backyard gardening and community gardening had these effects.

What is there about gardening that improves mood? The obvious: being outside in an attractive and peaceful environment, focusing on what the hands are doing and not what the head may be thinking, the positive effects of physical activity, sharing an activity with a family member or neighbor, and the joy in seeing something grow.

Of course, one cannot overlook the negative aspects as well: picking off bugs, weeding, the frustration of seeing newly arrived shoots eaten by urban or suburban wildlife, heat, cold, and wet weather. I have a friend who can never "harvest" her kale because the iguanas in her backyard get to the young leaves first. Another gave up gardening because weeds were the only plants that flourished in her backyard. Depending on where one lives, it is impossible to garden during several months of the year because of lack of sun and cold, or too much sun and heat. Maybe hydroponic gardens are the solution.

The most plausible explanation may be the positive effect of distraction on mood, stress, worry, and anxiety. Focusing on the repetitive tasks of watering, weeding, pruning, staking, and gathering the flowers or produce prevents focusing on one’s mood, problems, and sources of stress. Moreover, if the gardening occurs in a communal setting, the isolation caused by mental disorders or cognitive deficits is minimized.

The positive association between gardening and mood has been described for other communal and individual activities in which the hands and brain are occupied in making something. Knitting, quilting, needlepoint, carpentry, and playing music together are just a small number of examples in which focusing on something the hands can do diminishes our preoccupation with mood and worries. But gardening is unique because it has the advantage of getting us outdoors and, for a short while, engaged in our natural world.