Gardening as Therapy

Gardening is not only fun—it’s therapeutic. That’s probably not news to many of you who have already developed green thumbs from years of care and cultivating, but in the last few years this has grown into a movement. Many wellness centers, retirement facilities, and rehabilitation institutions are expanding their gardening programs in response.

As urban life separates many of us in the modern world from daily contact with the joys of nature, gardening immerses us in it completely. The term “bathing in nature” has even entered the lexicon of therapists and those developing progressive institutional programs. The results of such actions have been measured by many tests that show increased levels of serotonin and dopamine (our happy hormones) and decreases in cortisol (a hormone associated with negative levels of stress).

It may not only be the activities of gardening (weeding, sowing, watering, trimming…) that provide these effects. Studies conducted on microbes in the soil, such as Mycobacterium vaccae, appear to stimulate serotonin production, mirroring the effects of drugs such as Prozac. That may not be good news for the pharmaceutical companies, but it sure is excellent news for anyone who has access to a plot of land to dig in!

In some ways, gardening is like being a pet owner, in that it provides opportunities to nurture and focus attention on lives other than our own. In a modern world of stress and worry, becoming self-absorbed is a serious trend that can lead to an unhealthy downward spiral. Dedicating time and attention to plants pulls us away from self in a positive way and engages us mentally and physically with the care of our living charges.

Gardening can be practiced as a conscious form of meditation, placing us in a Zen-like state of intense focus and healthy repetition. Placing our energy so thoroughly and applying our thoughts so wholly to the job at hand mean we can release, at least temporarily, the concerns that distract and stress us.

By placing us outside and forcing us to contemplate the natural world—the climbing tendrils of a vine, the infinite and perfect beauty of a flower—we slow down time and gain even greater insights to our living planet. When we are not only surrounded by beauty, but are engaged in it, our appreciation is not only that of a spectator, but of an active participant. By learning more about natural cycles and how to encourage the innate abilities of plants to thrive and grow, we are rewarded throughout the seasons by living signs of our success.