Gardening can also help some people process difficult emotions, Neidich says.
This could explain the range of feelings I felt when I picked up the hobby. My anxiety was in overdrive, possibly from my job loss, and at first I doubted my ability to grow tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. But when I saw my first bean sprout, I was elated, as though that bean was a reminder that I could handle uncertainty. I felt the anxiety melt away during the journey to that first sprout, and knowing that I myself had cultivated my cherry tomatoes made them taste even sweeter.
Paul Camic, PhD, a professor of psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University and University College London, has led multiple studies that all show horticultural activities can indeed yield mental health benefits.
In one review study, Dr. Camic’s team concluded that across multiple studies, the addition of gardening to a treatment plan for depression was linked to benefits in emotional, social, vocational, physical, and spiritual well-being. Gardening also alleviated people’s depression and anxiety symptoms, according to that research.
In a 2015 study published in the journalEcopsychology, Camic’s researchers showed that community gardens boosted community connection and self-reported well-being for those who participated.
“[The data showed that] gardening provided a space of one’s own, a meaningful activity, increased feelings of connectedness, and improved physical and mental health,” Camic says. It doesn’t surprise Camic that people are taking to gardening now during a global pandemic, considering that well-being (particularly the type linked to having meaning and purpose in life) is significantly higher for individuals who take up gardening, he says.
Other research suggests gardening helps provide relief from acute stress and negative mood. And a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that just being around green space or plants for as little as 40 seconds can help with mood and focus afterward.
Think of any time you spend in a garden or green space as an opportunity for a mental reset.
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For me, even though gardening is a seasonal activity, it’s been a year-round self-care practice. In the fall, I got to enjoy harvesting my summer bounty and planting leafy produce that loves the occasional cold blast. During the coldest months of the year, I tended my indoor tropical tree collection. I bought entirely too many indoor potted plants, and I took pride in helping my fiddle leaf fig and rubber tree survive the below-freezing winter temperatures.
I’m just now beginning my shopping for the months of warmer-weather gardening ahead, and I’m looking forward to digging dirt, sowing seeds, and spreading soil.
For me, gardening has given me a new sense of purpose; during a year of upheaval and uncertainty, it has been grounding.
Neidich says you can reap the benefits of gardening no matter where you live, the size of garden space you have access to, or even if you don't have access to an outdoor garden of your own. “There are psychological benefits to tending to indoor plants or stepping outside to appreciate someone else's garden. The idea is to slow down, disconnect from devices, and focus your complete energy on the task at hand,” she says.
If you want to test out your green thumb, here are three easy ways to get started, offered by Bridget Bueche, an organic farming consultant and a former professional chef in Newport Beach, California.