Better Living Through Gardening (Earth Day edition)

I need life around me.
And, I am not alone in this; hence, community gardens.

That a sense of well-being is enhanced by walking through a forest, working in a garden, or having pets around is not exactly revolutionary. Philosophers and poets throughout human history have recognized that nature is more than something to be contended with or tamed. Being connected to nature is an integral part of how we see our own lives and relate to the rest of the world. Physicians have also acknowledged that patients heal faster when convalescing in a garden or with a companion animal. Even prison systems have found that involving inmates in gardening reduces violence and rates of recidivism.

I have come across several lists of the benefits of gardening. Most touch on common themes of improved physical and mental health while emphasizing specific aspects. My favorite list so far is one posted a couple of years ago in the UAE’s The National. Not only is at an interesting and fairly comprehensive list, it also references studies associated with each of the included benefits.

Along with the better understood aspects of the physical benefits – exercise, sensory stimulation, fresh air – some intriguing potential benefits found in these lists are:

A sense of responsibility: Here is this living thing that is totally dependent on you for proper watering, feeding, and adequate sunlight (or “sunlight” for indoor growers). Along with learning facts and fascination with nature, this is probably the best reason for including some type of horticultural program in every school.

Engendering hope: People suffering PTSD or depression benefit tremendously from a sense of hope that comes from helping a well nurtured garden grow, amplify life, and literally see the fruits of their labors.

Improved focus and attention span: This is one I can relate to. I fuss in the garden and few details escape me when I’m examining leaf health, making sure climbing plants are secure, or pinching back herbs. The idea is that this kind of primitive activity resets fundamental brain function which translates to better performance in a distracting modern environment.

Response with no judgment: Plants don’t care who takes care of them. They are not irrational nor do they harass a gardener with snide comments about the color of the border fencing or the type of cuisine they will become. They just grow.

A sense of accomplishment and reward: Vegetables that you grow in your own garden ALWAYS taste better than….anything. Especially if you also get some great harvest photos to post on Instagram.

Relieving Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Gardening during winter to counter some of the impact of SAD has historically been a remedy only available to those fortunate enough to have access to a heated greenhouse. But with the advent of hydroponics, and now the pPod™, off-season gardening is more accessible, even on a balcony in New York City. I love hearing “Can you get some thyme and parsley for the chicken?” from my wife when it is 15 degrees out. We also get to start our summer plants in February in the pPod.

Articles on the benefits of gardening and horticultural therapy tend to have a certain angle, or even bias, depending on the author’s intent, area of expertise and the interest area of the publication (academic and government research papers obviously focus on one particular subject). Looking at the array of points made by these authors, it is clear that the ways in which someone is positively affected by gardening depends on their personality and specific needs. For example, one article emphasizes solitary gardening as a way to relieve the stress of dealing with people at work while another promotes the health benefits of participating in a community garden. Some authors focus on physical fitness and the chores required in maintaining a garden, while others write about quiet times in natural settings for spiritual renewal.

Along with blogs and magazine articles that provide insightful overviews of the benefits of gardening, more detailed tangible information can be learned by exploring research papers found through medical journals and government agencies such as the NIH. What you may discover is that definitive clinical evidence of the psychological benefits of horticultural therapy has been elusive, as most studies are qualitative. However, the number of studies that identify direct, quantitative physical and psychological effects is increasing, adding to a growing body of research pointing to health benefits of gardening and the risks associated with being deprived of contact with nature. Recent studies have even shown a clear link between horticultural therapy and a reduction in chemical stress indicators.

The engineer in me really wants these kinds of quantitative results to show proof that working in a garden x number of hours each week improves work performance or ailment recovery by x%. Nobody could argue with that. The businessman in me knows that such hard evidence would be a powerful marketing tool. But then the gardener in me says “That’s nice. I just know that I benefit tremendously from watching to see which of my heirloom tomatoes will look like a duck.” The point is that anyone will feel better growing something, anything, especially if they can eat it.

Just as solitary time in the garden serves a specific therapeutic purpose, sharing that experience with others can be more valuable. Not only do the benefits experienced by each gardener get aggregated, but the garden itself takes on a greater significance in how it affects the local community and surrounding areas. Health improvements associated with community garden programs are now being recognized such that the value of expanding these programs is being taken seriously by many local governments. Community gardens have proven to be powerful tools for improving distressed neighborhoods in many urban areas such as Detroit, empowering their residents to have a positive impact on the city as a whole. In response, cities have revised land-use policies and invested in community gardens.

As we celebrate Earth Day, we are reminded to pay attention to the complexity of every human and seriously consider how all of our interactions with nature impact our individual and communal lives, whether or not we fully realize or understand it.