Why taking a spade to soil is good for us

April 5, 2017 Allison Milionis

Raise your hand if you’ve ever let off steam by heading to the garden with your pruning shears and hoe in hand. Maybe yanking weeds out of the ground releases your angst, or coaxing seeds into sprouts dampens your emotional storms.

Gardening is a wonderful activity for managing stress, mood swings and depression. The rhythmic nature of the work combined with all the sensory stimulation of nature – touch, smell, sight and sound – acts as a tonic for all that ails us.

Goodbye stress, hello happy

“We know there’s a psychological response when we’re exposed to nature,” says Anne Hanenburg, landscape architect at SPVV Landscape Architects in Spokane, Wash. Hanenburg specializes in creating healing and therapeutic gardens for health care clients. In 2015, she led the work on the Kalispell Tribe Courtyard at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and currently she’s working on two gardens at Kootenai Health & Medical Center.

“Being around nature decreases heart rate and stress hormone levels,” she says. At the same time, the physical work of gardening releases serotonin and dopamine – both hormones that make us feel happy.

A study out of the Netherlands reported that gardening can diminish stress more than a leisurely read. “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,” the researchers wrote.

Growing things = a sense of purpose

Putting plants or seeds in the ground or a pot with the intent of growing something edible or beautiful is an exercise in hope. To ensure they grow requires nurturing, which in turn fosters a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose offers a long list of health benefits, the least of them being an overall feeling of well-being and improved self-esteem.

A 2015 study on the effects of having a sense of purpose found that “participants who scored higher on sense of purpose reported lower levels of functional disability, performed better on cognitive tests (episodic memory and speed of processing), and reported better self-rated health and fewer depressive symptoms.”

Exercise for the mind

Recent research has found that gardening and access to gardens can help patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, researchers noted that gardens could benefit dementia patients by providing them with sensory stimulation. “They [gardens] not only present an opportunity to relax in a calming setting, but also to remember skills and habits that have brought enjoyment in the past,” wrote the study’s lead researcher, Rebecca Whear.

Hanenburg couldn’t agree more. Many of her landscape projects are designed with the elderly in mind – especially those with memory loss. “People with memory issues benefit from being involved in the steps it takes to care for a garden, as well as the fine motor skills needed to do the work,” she says.

For example, even weeding requires some planning and preparation, and the task itself takes hand-eye coordination. People with memory loss or cognitive issues may find any part of the process challenging. “There’s certainly a cognitive component to gardening,” says Hanenburg.

“Gardens offer a range of ways to interact and exercise our minds.”

Gardens help stimulate the senses of memory patients, as well. Plants promote sight, smell and tactile stimulation, while trees provide color, seasonal variation and sound when the leaves rustle in the wind. Vegetables and herbs provide a varied visual and tactile experience, but they can also help improve appetite and promote eating. Is there anything more satisfying than eating produce fresh out of the ground?

Exercise for the body

Anyone who has ever tended a garden can attest to the fact that gardening is a full-body workout. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, light gardening is considered “moderate cardiovascular exercise.” Working outside 30 to 45 minutes can burn 165 to 330 calories. Digging, planting, raking, weeding and lifting require strength and flexibility. Even toiling in a garden bed from a chair improves mobility. The repetitiveness of the work provides an excellent low-impact workout, which is especially helpful for people who aren’t able to participate in vigorous exercise or who suffer from chronic pain.

If you want to get more of a workout from gardening, increase your energy output by carrying buckets to water your plants rather than using a hose or sprinkler. Push a full wheelbarrow a couple extra rounds. Increase your range of motion by exaggerating the raking or the digging motion. Rake right-handed 15 times, then left-handed 15 times. There is no end to the number of ways you can work up a sweat in the garden.

Gardening reminds us to let go

In the garden, we’re away from electronic devices and the demands of our jobs, families and friends. It’s an escape from responsibilities that can feel annoying on some days, daunting on others. The plants don’t talk back, and the soil is forgiving. Background noise falls away, and the anxious chatter in our heads is silenced by our busy hands at work.

No yard? No problem

Maybe you’re inspired to get started on a garden, but you don’t have a yard or room for a garden bed. Hanenburg says container gardens can offer the same psychological benefits as a ground garden. Plus, you might be surprised by how much you can grow.

If you have a suspended patio and are concerned about the weight of clay containers, use fiberglass. Hanenburg says you can even purchase soil mixes that weigh less. Container gardens tend to dry quickly so consider installing an irrigation system. “Or bring containers indoors,” says Hanenburg. Some plants, such as herbs, thrive in a sunny windowsill. “And everyone benefits from indoor greenery.”

Where to go with questions

Your county extension is an excellent resource. Most counties offer workshops, classes and online links to gardening information specific to your region and zone.

Consider adding Sunset Magazine’s Western Garden book and the Handbook of Landscape Tree Cultivars by Willet N. Wandell to your library. Hanenburg says she always reaches for her Western Garden book when tackling a new project. She also recommends Fine Gardening Magazine as a comprehensive online resource.

When is the best time to plant? Use these tips to help get the best results from your garden.

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