Gardening for Mental Well-Being

May 15, 2024

Interest in gardening has increased since the pandemic, as more and more people are searching for ways to disconnect from stressful times and reconnect to nature. It turns out that immersing ourselves in green spaces and caring for plants is a form of caring for ourselves. Time spent in nature has been found to improve mental health so much so that gardening has been prescribed by the National Health Service in Great Britain since 2019. But while scientists are just beginning to pay attention to nature’s overall effect on our health, humans have known about the power of gardening for a very long time. 

Historic Gardens and Horticultural Therapy

Ancient and modern gardens all over the world, including Persian pleasure gardens, Islamic paradise gardens, Chinese courtyard gardens and Japanese rock gardens, nurture a sense of separation from the chaotic world and provide a place for inward reflection. In addition to sources of food, the Roman Empire treated gardens as a place to cultivate mindfulness. As extensions of the home, Roman gardens were the first outdoor rooms. They served as spaces to rest and marvel at nature’s wonder. By the Middle Ages, hospital gardens modeled after these Roman gardens were seen as integral parts of the hospital, not just to feed patients and grow medicines but to offer patients time outside. But as efficiency and technology took over medical treatment, these spaces went extinct.

Still, the benefits of gardens were not forgotten. In the 1800s, early American psychiatrists began noting links between horticulture and mental health. Born in 1933, the famous neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks believed that gardens and nature were more powerful than any medication. As the scientific evidence of spending time in green spaces leading to better health grew, many hospitals began incorporating gardens into their facilities again and horticultural therapy was developed as a therapeutic practice in the 1970s.

Horticultural therapy involves taking care of plants with specific goals for the patient in mind. For instance, tending to a garden and watching it thrive can help people build self-esteem and feel a sense of accomplishment. Gardening can also lead to life lessons, such as when a plant dies, the person can ask themselves, “What could I have done differently?” Connecting the garden to themself can lead them to think that maybe they can do a little more to take care of themself, too. “It’s really the plants that are the therapists,” says Laura Rumpf, a horticultural therapist who treats patients with dementia through gardening. “Even if somebody can’t necessarily name what it is they’re smelling, the body somehow remembers.” For those with dementia for instance, plants can help them to reminisce which leads to telling stories and sharing memories, an important part of connecting to others and validating their identity.

The Scientific Proof of Nature’s Benefits

Gardening involves exercise, which we know is beneficial to our health, and since people tend to breathe more deeply when they’re outside, outdoor activities can clear the lungs, aid digestion, and improve immune responses. Sunlight also lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin D levels, but the benefits of outdoor gardening extend beyond these physical benefits.

A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Florida found that gardening lowered stress, anxiety and depression in healthy women who attended a gardening class twice a week. “Past studies have shown that gardening can help improve the mental health of people who have existing medical conditions or challenges,” said the principal investigator of the study Charles Guy. “Our study shows that healthy people can also experience a boost in mental well-being through gardening.” In addition to improved mental well-being, interacting with nature has proven cognitive benefits. A 2019 study by University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman showed that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children, while adults assigned to public housing in green neighborhoods exhibited better attentional functioning than those assigned to units with less access to green spaces.

Scientists have a few ideas as to why nature is so good for our mental health. One hypothesis is that since our ancestors evolved in the wild and relied on their environment for survival, we have an innate drive to connect with nature. As a species, we may be attracted to plants because we depend on them for food and shelter. Another hypothesis is that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels. Throughout human history, trees and water have been an oasis and signaled relaxation. There is an implicit trust in nature that calms our parasympathetic nervous system. Yet a third hypothesis is that nature replenishes cognitive functioning, which restores the ability to concentrate and pay attention. The truth probably lies in a combination of all of these theories.

Gardening Against Loneliness

Perhaps one of the most overlooked yet obvious benefits of gardening is that it can make people feel less alone in the world. While gardening can bring people together through community gardens, one doesn’t even need to be around other people while spending time in nature in order to feel more connected to others. “Nature can be a way to induce awe,” said psychology professor John Zelenski. “One of the things that may come from awe is the feeling that the individual is part of a much bigger whole.”

Gardening can bring people together through a sense of community, as people who garden are rich with expertise that they are willing to share with other gardeners. Master gardeners and local volunteers dedicate their time to empowering other people in the community who are interested in growing their own plants. Simply sharing a gardening blunder is just one way to connect with a fellow gardener. Social connections are important for our mental well-being because they help lower stress, improve resilience, and provide support, while a strong sense of belonging has been shown to lower one’s risk of depression and anxiety.    

Community gardens are a great place to connect with others as they offer room for talking during uncomplicated and repetitive tasks. Since gardening can bring together all kinds of people, time in the garden with others can also remind us that we are more alike than not. “Gardens are a great point of connection,” said the director of a London community garden Sarah Alun-Jones. “We often find ourselves talking about where we grew up, our childhood gardens, food we like to grow and cook… and we learn lots along the way.”

If you’re thinking of incorporating gardening into your routine, it doesn’t need to be intimidating. Simply starting by potting indoor plants or taking walks in green spaces during your lunch break are just two simple ways to connect with nature now. At, you may store all of your gardening plans and records, so that you can become the researcher of your own gardening benefits.

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