by Dr. Louise Wilson, ND (inactive)
There are many things that I enjoy, but on the top of this list, in a close call with spending time with my three awesome kids, is gardening. From the first few warm weather days of spring until the crisp autumn air sends me inside to warm up with my botanical references, you can find me in the garden. Whether it be with the vegetables, herbs, or various perennials that I have collected over the years, gardening fills me with a joy that I’m sure others can relate to. Even picking the creeping charlie and purslane in my overgrown lawn is something that gives me a sense of calm and, dare I say it, can be a pleasurable experience. There is something about getting my hands into the soil, pushing aside those earthworms, and nurturing my ever-expanding plot of vegetation that has me prepping for growing season come March. I don’t know how else to say it: I love gardening.
While many people come to gardening for various reasons—whether as an organic food source, social experience, exercise, or for decorative leanings—research indicates that there are undoubtedly health benefits that come along with this engaging and important activity, whatever the motivation. Psychologically and physiologically, the benefits of gardening are emerging in the literature, and these benefits can play an important role in the wellness instruction that naturopathic doctors and other health-care practitioners provide.
As health-care practitioners, we are well-aware of the beneficial influence that nature plays when it comes to our health, both individually and in our community. When we fail to connect with our natural environments, this can potentiate numerous health concerns in body and mind. In fact, some argue that a decrease in contact with nature results in a number of health and behavioural problems, especially for children, and that these concerns may be more succinctly described as a “nature-deficit disorder.” Exposure to nature—whether it be with a walk along a community trail, a bike ride along the ravine, a trip to the country apple orchard, or simply enjoying the company of a friend in the tranquility of one of Canada’s many wonderful provincial and national parks (Bon Echo is one of my favorites)—can benefit numerous health conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to, depression and anxiety, birth weight issues, diabetes, obesity, circulatory and heart disease, as well longevity. Therefore, regular contact with nature can promote health and be used as a form of preventive medicine, proving to be an important “tool in the toolbox” when it comes to the individualized health-care that naturopathic doctors routinely provide.
More specifically with regards to gardening, there is increasing awareness among researchers and health-care practitioners of the potential health benefits derived from this engaging nature activity. When we look at the research, studies show that gardening has various benefits that can enhance many aspects of health and wellness. These improvements include increases in an individual’s life satisfaction, vigour, psychological well-being, positive affects, cognitive function, as well as enhancing a sense of community. In addition, reductions in stress, anger, fatigue, depression, and anxiety symptoms have also been found when it comes to the therapeutic influence of gardening. Coupling these health benefits with gardening’s cost-effectiveness as a health intervention can be a win-win, for the environment and the overall wellness of those seeking the relief of many different health concerns.
A meta-analysis that aimed to review the current literature on gardening and its health-related outcomes has further found that participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health. This positive association with gardening was observed for a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance, as well as body-mass index (BMI). Further, improvements in quality of life, a sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function we also identified. Some studies in the analysis showed that even a few hours of exercise in gardens can provide an instantaneous beneficial influence on health (e.g. reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms). Longer-term effects were also described in this meta-analysis, with improvement of patients’ health states (e.g. depression severity, life satisfaction, cognitive function) persisting at 3 months’ follow-up. Of the 22 case studies included in the study, 7 studies focused on daily gardening and found that those who participated had better health than did nongardeners, such as reductions in stress and BMI, as well as increases in general health and life satisfaction.
To explain the benefit of gardening on individual health, the researchers who conducted the analysis concluded that there are many different, overlapping explanations that can be made. The first, and most direct one, which we have already alluded to here, is the added health benefits of direct experience with nature. Secondly, gardening involves some form of physical activity, which we know has benefits on health, both physically and psychologically. I can’t tell you how many times I have come in from a long day in the garden feeling like I just hit the gym. Gardening is also often a low-impact activity that many older individuals, or those with limited mobility, can engage in with relative simplicity, in the comfort of their own environments. Thirdly, gardens provide opportunities to interact with other members of local communities. There are many community-garden plots emerging within our cityscapes that encourage local food growing as well as fostering a sense of community. These plots, often developed on otherwise vacant land, help to forge and reinforce social ties, community networks, knowledge, and friendships. Fourthly, independent fruit and vegetable gardening provides an organic, nutrient-rich supply of plant-based foods at your doorstep. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, beans, and peppers are all relatively easy plants to grow, and what could be easier than heading outside to get your salad fresh ingredients? Lastly, I believe that gardening provides a sense of accomplishment and learning. Education and achieving some mastery over a given task can support mental health, which in turn has benefits for our overall health. Learning and growing with gardening is an activity that gives a sense of purpose and control, and that often makes the world a more beautiful and liveable place.
Not everyone has a plot of land to devote to a flourishing garden, and if you’re anything like my husband, pulling out the lawnmower once the grass has hit knee height is about as close as he wants to get to a green thumb. That being said, for many individuals seeking naturopathic and other forms of preventive care, gardening is a simple and worthwhile treatment expectation with widespread benefits. Improving psychological and physiological health is the goal of all health-care practitioners and a prescription for gardening, in small or large forms, can be an important and promising health resource for the individual client as well as the local community. So, fear not: Grab your shovels, compost, and a few seeds, and get started gardening; learning will come along the way. If you need me, I’ll be in the garden!