Gardening is Good for Your Mental Health

By Barbara Pierce

“Gardening is a real stress reliever, a big stress reliever for me,” said Linda Wimmer, master gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.

The master gardener volunteer program is a group of volunteers who are trained by Cornell Cooperative Extension and use their horticultural skills and expertise to teach others about gardening and the environment.

“There’s something about gardening that’s calming,” Wimmer said. “Having your hands in the soil; digging in the dirt. Being out in the sunshine, being out in the fresh air, away from electronics.”

Gardening is good for our mental health in so many ways, agreed Holly Wise, consumer horticultural research educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.

“During the pandemic, when we were able to get together to garden, it was so good to connect with each other,” she continued. “People chatted about their interest in gardening, as well as sharing recipes, and other things.”

“Gardening brings joy — there’s always something to look forward to, like a flower growing,” said Wise.

As the weather begins to warm up, the urge to spend more time outside gardening is steadily on the rise. Research increasingly suggests that people who spend time outside regularly, or even look at images or videos of nature when going out isn’t possible, have better moods overall.

A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that even viewing a garden brought about several positive psychological benefits, including reduced stress. Being in nature and gardening significantly reduced the body’s stress hormone, improved mood, lowered irritability, reduced headaches and pain, decreased the need for medication, and even lowered the overall risk of heart attacks.

Wise agreed.

“Gardening distracts us. It’s a good stress reliever to dig in the soil, even if you’re just weeding,” she said.

In times of stress, gardening lends an outlet to keep our hands busy, freeing our mind of stressful thoughts. Hands-on activities like gardening allow our brain to slow down. Focusing on something physical puts us in a sort of meditative state, releasing dopamine (the feel-good chemical in our brain) and slowing our breathing.

Gardening decreases depression. Gardening and care of plants exposes people to sunshine with its high amounts of vitamin D, which creates serotonin, the chemical in brains that induces happiness.

“When I’m having a bad day, feeling really down, I go out and work in my garden. After a few hours, I’m in a much happier state of mind,” said 67-year-old Donna Dorr of Port Charlotte, Florida.

In fact, researchers have found that people who move to homes with greener areas have better mental health than they did in their previous homes.

And the hands-on experience of toiling in a garden gives your brain an added boost. Evidence shows it strengthens the brain and reduces the risk for dementia.

Plant-filled homes and gardens can boost memory and heighten your attention span.

As Wise noted, being around other people, working together as you garden, has double benefits — the benefits of gardening and the benefits of being with others.

And, of course, gardening offers unlimited ways to bend, squat, tug, pull, and dig to get physically fit. The digging, planting, weeding, shoveling and watering of gardening provides a total body workout with serious aerobic benefits. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers gardening an ideal moderate to intense physical activity that reduces the risk for Type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, colon cancer, stroke and depression, among many others.

The health benefits associated with gardening are quite impressive; especially when you consider that you’re using all the major muscle groups, not to mention all of the mental benefits of working outdoors and nurturing a garden.

Great benefits while opening the mind and mood to the positive benefits of open air, sunshine and the good old fashioned meditative practice of digging in the dirt.

As with any exercise program, beginning slowly and building up endurance is important. To help prevent injury and alleviate strained muscles, stretch before you start, if you’re doing strenuous work, take frequent breaks and stretch in between.

So get ready to get those hands and knees dirty! Let’s all benefit from what we reap and sow in the garden. “We’re all a little bit of a gardener in our hearts,” said Wimmer.

Interested in Becoming a Master Gardner?

A training session for those interested in becoming master gardeners is available at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. Persons can join in the first part of April. For information, call Holly Wise at 315-736-3394, ext. 125, or see cceoneida.com/home-garden/gardening/master-gardener-volunteers for details.