In our annual reader survey, we asked educators how they care for their wellbeing, and many said they spend time in their garden to alleviate stress and improve their overall health.
Wellbeing by Teacher is dedicated to improving the lives of teachers and school leaders by providing them with informative, evidence-based strategies to care for their body, mind and overall sense of wellbeing. In today’s article, we explore the physical and mental health benefits of gardening and why spending time in the garden is proven to relieve stress.
Whether you have a few small plants on your windowsill, or a yard with an impressive vegetable plot, there are a whole range of physical and mental health benefits people experience from the time spent in their gardens.
Gardening is also a great way to relieve stress. In this study, participants performed a stressful task and then were randomly assigned either 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or 30 minutes of indoor reading. The researchers used salivary cortisol levels to measure stress, and participants also self-reported on their mood.
The results show that gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading (Van Den Berg et al, 2011).
Physical health benefits of gardening
Dr Chris Williams is an Honorary Fellow at the Burnley Campus of the University of Melbourne, where he specialises in urban agriculture.
He says there are several physical health benefits people experience when they spend time in their gardens. ‘Being outdoors, fresh air, you’re lifting things, you’re digging – it’s diverse, the amount of physical activity you do,’ Williams says. ‘You can also tailor it to be very gentle as well, depending on your mood and how you’re feeling.’
Research shows gardening combines physical activity with social interaction and exposure to nature and sunlight. Sunlight lowers blood pressure as well as increasing vitamin D levels in the summer (Sowah et al, 2017) and the fruit and vegetables that are produced have a positive impact on diet.
Working in the garden restores dexterity and strength, and the aerobic exercise of gardening can use the same number of calories as might be expended in a gym. Digging, raking and mowing are particularly calorie intense (Vaz et al, 2005).
Mental health benefits
Gardening can have a positive impact on your mental health. For example, having regular contact with nature can have a long-lasting effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Gardening can also help you think more clearly and improve your attention span (Soga et al, 2016).
Williams says there are several mental health benefits people experience when gardening, which stem from the sense of achievement people feel from caring for another living thing.
‘The benefits are calming, taking yourself out of yourself, reducing stress and anxiety, and because you’re caring for something else it alleviates negative thoughts, gives people a sense of responsibility and then of course, food is that extra element. If you’re growing food you can eat, that’s an extra level of achievement,’ he says.
This research found spending time in the garden reduces a person’s cortisol levels (a chemical your body produces in response to stress) more than reading a book.
Therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy
Gardening is recognised as a cost-effective health intervention and treatment for those experiencing psychological health issues. In fact, tailored gardening programs (or horticultural therapy) have been shown to increase the quality of life for people with chronic mental illness, including anxiety and depression (Perrins-Margalis et al, 2000).
There is a distinct different between therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy, Williams says.
Horticultural therapy involves the participation in horticultural activities facilitated by a registered horticultural therapist to achieve specific goals within an established treatment, rehabilitation, or vocational plan. Horticultural therapy programs can be found in a wide variety of healthcare, rehabilitative, and residential settings.
Therapeutic horticulture, on the other hand, refers to the use of plants and gardening to help people alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and boredom. It is a broad term in that all forms of gardening can be argued to deal with these issues. It could include weeding, watering, planting or propagating.
Building a sense of belonging
Williams is also on the Board of Cultivating Community, an organisation that provides opportunities for low income and migrant communities to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food through their Public Housing Community Gardens.
He says community gardens help to build a sense of community, but also help to promote positive mental health benefits.
‘A private garden at home is such a sanctuary and somewhere where you can be very calm and you’re not necessarily talking to other people. Community gardens can provide that as well,’ Williams tells Wellbeing by Teacher. ‘In the Cultivating Community tower block gardens, people often don’t speak each other’s languages – there are 31 languages spoken across Melbourne’s tower blocks, maybe more.
‘Some community gardens now deliberately have communal areas so people can come, join and actually work together. They build up a sense of belonging and of communal activity, but within which people can still have that very quiet time to themselves – they’re the best-designed ones,’ he says.
Perrins-Margalis, N. M., Rugletic, J., Schepis, N. M., Stepanski, H. R., & Walsh, M. A. (2000). The immediate effects of a group-based horticulture experience on the quality of life of persons with chronic mental illness. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 16(1), 15-32.
Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., & Yamaura, Y. (2017). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive medicine reports, 5, 92-99.
Sowah, D., Fan, X., Dennett, L., Hagtvedt, R., & Straube, S. (2017). Vitamin D levels and deficiency with different occupations: a systematic review. BMC public health, 17(1), 519. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4436-z
Vaz, M., Karaolis, N., Draper, A., & Shetty, P. (2005). A compilation of energy costs of physical activities. Public Health Nutrition, 8(7a), 1153-1183.
Van Den Berg, A. E., & Custers, M. H. (2011). Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. Journal of health psychology, 16(1), 3-11.
How do you care for your own health and wellbeing? Do you have any gardening tips that you’d like to share with your Wellbeing by Teacher readers? We’d love to hear about it. Email us with a brief outline and we’ll be in touch.