Two years ago, a concussion left me with lingering debilitation, anxiety, and depression. I went from being an active, busy person with a meaningful career, to not being able to do much of anything. Needless to say, I was not in a good place.
Then a community garden opened on my street.
At the time, I had no idea what impact venturing over to that nearby community garden would have on my life.
I know now that garden therapy, also known as horticultural therapy, is an effective supplemental therapy for all sorts of health problems. I hope that by sharing my story, others may look into this as an option.
Gardening and My Recovery
Living in a nearby condo, I was able to tend to our vegetable garden almost every day. Walking to and from the garden, lifting watering cans, squatting while pulling weeds and harvesting vegetables helped build my tolerance to physical activity. I felt energized by the fresh air and sunlight, while my daily trips gave me a new purpose and an achievable goal.
Gardening helped me socialize again. I met new people from the community and had something new to talk about with family and friends. I loved figuring out the ideal growth conditions for different plants, and learned tips from other gardeners. Each day brought a new challenge (e.g. weeds, pests, weather conditions) and surprise (e.g. sprouts, flowers, new growth), and I derived much joy from watching the plants change and respond to my care.
All of my hard work and patience paid off when I was finally able to harvest the vegetables. Then I had even more fun sharing and trading vegetables with others, and finding creative ways to cook them. But above all, gardening gave me a sense of accomplishment and progress that I had been desperately missing since my injury. My spirits lifted, my perspective changed, I became happier and my physical symptoms improved.
The Proven Benefits of Gardening
Note: I’ve tailored the list of benefits for fruit and vegetable gardening, but most of them apply to flower gardening, as well.
Food, Nutrition, and Cost Benefits
The simplest and most obvious benefit of fruit and vegetable gardening is the produce! Here are some benefits of growing your own:
- Home-grown fruits and vegetables are fresher and tastier than the produce sold in grocery stores, because they’re picked when they are ripe, whereas grocery store produce needs to be harvested before ripening.
- Home grown produce has more nutrients, fewer pesticides, and costs less than store bought.
- You can get several harvests from a single planting of vegetables such as kale, spinach, swiss chard, and lettuce. These types of plants will grow back after you cut them, so you can enjoy them all season long.
- You can stretch your crop yield even further by using all the edible parts of your plants, such as: the green stalks (called scapes) of certain types of garlic, young snow pea shoots, coriander roots, and the leaves of broccoli, brussel sprouts, sweet potato, and beet plants.
- Gardening makes eating organically affordable! Organic produce is often considerably more expensive than non-organic produce, whereas organic seeds are only a little bit more expensive than non-organic seeds.
Mental Health Benefits
There is evidence that horticulture therapy is effective at treating addiction, depression, anxiety, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and low self-esteem. Working the soil with your hands and eating home-grown food will increase your exposure to a non-harmful bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae, which causes our brains to release serotonin which helps fight depression.
In general, using our hands to perform tasks stimulates the parts of our brain that make us feel good.
Practicing mindfulness means to be present in the moment. When you focus on a single, hands-on task such as gardening, you can quiet your many thoughts and engage in something creative, productive, and rewarding. Being mindful breaks the cycle of ruminations, allows you to think more clearly and less negatively, and can make your problems feel less overwhelming.
Mindfulness – mindful gardening included – can help relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and help with the treatment of depression, addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Physical Health Benefits
The physical health benefits of gardening, especially when gardening outdoors, far exceed those of other forms of exercise. To start, gardening can improve strength, muscle tone, flexibility, blood circulation, and physical endurance, which in turn reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Studies have shown that being among plants and nature can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower your heart rate, and lower your blood pressure, Simply exposing your skin to sunlight increases vitamin D levels which is important for bone health and preventing osteoporosis. More surprisingly, research has shown that just being exposed to plants can improve your immune system. It is hypothesized that plants release phytoncides to protect themselves from bacteria and fungus, and that these chemicals are also beneficial for humans. Lastly, a lot of people have difficulty staying motivated and sticking to an exercise routine, but according to one study, people who exercise outside are more likely to exercise consistently.
Growing your own food is not only good for your health and budget, it’s good for the environment! Since 81 per cent of the fruits and vegetables used in Canada are imported, you can reduce your carbon footprint by buying fewer imported goods. You’re also producing less garbage by growing your own food, because grocery stores often sell their produce with non-recyclable packaging (e.g. plastic bags, styrofoam, elastic bands, twist ties).
Gardening is a great outlet for your creativity. If you grow flowers, you can choose complimentary colours and design a beautiful landscape/container using different types of plants. You can also create floral arrangements using flowers cut from your garden. If you grow fruits or vegetables, you can get creative with different recipes. You could also experiment with different food preservation methods such as freezing, canning, pickling, and drying.
Patience and Acceptance
Lastly, gardening teaches us to practice patience. We can’t make plants grow faster anymore than we can make our health problems recover more quickly. When we learn to accept the things that we cannot control, we can move past disappointment, let go of judgment, and feel peaceful in the midst of any storm.
How to Get Started
A plant’s basic needs are simple: a medium from which it can grow (e.g. soil or water), light (e.g. sunlight or plant growth-promoting lights), and water. Added nutrients can also help plants grow. When caring for your plants, remember that they all have different needs for optimal growth. If you have any questions, you can always get help from staff at gardening stores, gardening books from the library, online searches, and talking to people that have gardening experience. Below are some simple guidelines to help you get started.
Decide where you will grow your plants. Your options may include: front yard, back yard, community garden, balcony, and indoors in front of a window that gets a lot of sunlight.
Figure out the conditions you’ll be working with. Determine whether your plants will be planted in the ground, in a raised garden bed or containers. Then make note of how much sun your garden is exposed to. Assuming you are in North America and your chosen area isn’t covered in shade by nearby trees or buildings, south-facing and/or west-facing windows/balconies/yards will get the most sun; east-facing areas will get moderate sunlight; and north-facing areas will get very little sunlight.
Chose plants that will thrive under your garden’s conditions. Consider flowers, non-flowering plants, herbs, fruits and/or vegetables. Keep in mind the available space surrounding your garden, as some plants need to grow upwards onto fences, trellises or cages, and others need to spread out along the ground.
Decide whether to purchase a starter plant or to plant from seed. Then figure out the best month of the year to start growing your plants. Some plants need to be planted in early spring while the temperature is still a bit cool, whereas others do best when planted during the hottest months of the year. You could even get an early start to the season by starting your seeds in small containers indoors and then planting the seedlings outdoors once it’s warm enough. If you start your own seeds indoors, you will need some potting soil.
Determine the medium (e.g. soil, manure, moss, and/or bark, etc.), appropriate amount and frequency of watering and fertilizer or plant food that will work best with your plant(s). You might even want to try growing plants that only need water (i.e. no soil). Seeds and starter plants usually come with planting instructions. (On a side note: if you’re planning on planting more than one species in a single container or garden bed, you might want to do a quick Internet search about the beneficial and antagonistic relationship between neighbouring plants, so that you know which of your plants should and shouldn’t be planted side by side.)
Protect your plants. Insects, pests, and/or animals may eat or disease your plants. First, identify the type of insect, pest, or animal that you are dealing with and then find a simple and non-toxic solution. For instance, putting up physical barriers such as fencing can keep rabbits out, and homemade insecticides can kill insects (see one recipe here).
It’s all part of the natural gardening experience! You’ll be enjoying your flowers, fruits, herbs, and/or vegetables in no time.
Note that although this article focuses on fruit and vegetable gardening, flower gardening can be just as beneficial.
Mind Yourself with Alison is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). You can find other articles by her HERE.