Cultivating wellbeing and mental health through gardening

Vaithehy Shanmuganathan-Felton, Luke Felton, Celia Briseid and Betty Maitland.

On 10 May 2020, the strict social distancing rules aimed to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 within the community eased, including the reopening of garden centres. Approximately 87 per cent of UK households have access to a domestic garden [1], with gardening considered a popular pastime, with 40 per cent of the total UK population actively participating in gardening [2]. There is a substantial body of research demonstrating the positive benefits of gardening-based activities on wellbeing and mental health [3]. In this article, we will provide a brief overview of the evidence-based psychological health benefits of gardening across the lifespan, the mechanisms through which gardening promotes wellbeing and mental health, and finally some guidance on how to incorporate gardening activities to enhance wellbeing and mental health during the current pandemic (and beyond).  

The benefits of gardening on wellbeing and mental health across the lifespan

Gardening encompasses a range of basic activities such as sowing, the planting of fruit, vegetables and flowers to more complex horticultural activities. We use the term 'gardening' to describe “an activity in which people grow, cultivate, and take care of plants (flowers and vegetables) for non-commercial use,” in domestic gardens, allotment and community gardens [3].     

Engagement in gardening activities (either integrated in the school curriculum or community and home based) has shown to promote social relationships, family connection, emotional and mental wellbeing, moderate stress, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve cognitive and educational outcomes in children and adolescents [4-6]. Further personal well-being effects include increased enjoyment, sense of achievement, satisfaction and pride from nurturing the plants; feelings of mastery and empowerment for children who do not excel in the traditional academic setting; provide quiet time for reflection and increased confidence and self-esteem [6]. Participating in gardening activities appears to have a similar positive impact on adult wellbeing and mental health, with improvements in life satisfaction, vigour, psychological wellbeing, positive affect, quality of life [7-9] and reductions in stress, anger, fatigue, depression and anxiety symptoms reported [9-11]. Engagement in gardening has shown to have both immediate and long-term effects on mental health outcomes. Just gardening for several hours provides instantaneous reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, while gardening daily is associated with reduced stress and increased life satisfaction [3]

Gardening is one of the most preferred methods of physical activity in older adults [12]. Recent research conducted at the University of Roehampton examined the effect of a gardening programme involving cultivating food on promoting bone health, mental health and reducing falls in older adults [13]. While the programme did not improve physical health, it did improve participant’s subjective wellbeing, and self-efficacy in achieving their goals. Other studies have further shown gardening to reduce stress, promote feelings of mastery, accomplishment and competence, higher levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing [14-15]. Moreover, the social and physical health benefits of community gardening has shown to delay dementia symptoms [16]

Given the compelling evidence for gardening and improved mental (and physical) health, Horticultural Therapy was developed as a cost-effective alternative treatment for those with psychological and psychiatric issues. Horticultural Therapy, which involves sowing and planting with therapeutic goals and objectives for improving or recovering health, is effective in treating patients with a number of mental health conditions, including clinical depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse [17-18]. Unsurprisingly, such positive effects of the Horticultural Therapy appears to be stronger enduring in patients and therapy users than with the general population, with improvement of patients' mental health persisting three months following therapy [3].  

Why does gardening improve wellbeing and mental health? 

There are a number of reasons for the positive effects of gardening on wellbeing and mental health. First, there is the strenuous physical exertion underpinning gardening activities. The benefits of physical activity and exercise for mental health are well known, with 30 minutes of daily exercise sufficient to improve and maintain wellbeing and mental health [19]. Planting, weeding, digging, raking, and mowing are considered physically intense and avid gardeners can easily exert the same amount of energy as running or going to the gym [20]. Gardening provides a more creative and enjoyable way to undertake physical exercise and meet the national exercise recommendations, which in return contribute to improving psychological health. 

Gardening also allows individuals to interact with nature. In recent years, a growing number of studies led by researchers at Essex University, have demonstrated the benefits of ‘Green Exercise’ (GE; being physically active within a natural environment or greenspace), on wellbeing and mental health, with reductions in stress and depression, increases in self-esteem, mood and wellbeing reported in children and adolescents, adults, and vulnerable and disadvantaged populations [21]. Even small doses, such as five minutes of nature, is considered to improve self-esteem and mood [22]. Furthermore, GE can provide greater benefits than physical activity, exercise, or nature contact alone for wellbeing and mental health [21]. Gardening therefore offers an opportunity to not only interact with nature but also engaging in physical activity, therefore reaping all the health benefits of GE. 

Community and therapeutic gardening projects offer a social context to the activity for social interaction, which can counteract feelings of loneliness and social isolation, especially for those with pre-existing learning difficulties and mental health [3]. It provides an opportunity to meet new people, make new friends, connect with people to develop a network or inner circle and draw support from like-minded people.

How to incorporate gardening into our lives during and beyond social isolation 

There is clear evidence that gardening is an enjoyable and effective activity for improving physical activity as well as wellbeing and mental health across the lifespan. Whilst we are adapting to the many changes to work and home-life, the opportunities to incorporate gardening presents itself as an activity that individuals can do on their own or with loved ones. Gardening activities can include a range of activities, which suit all needs and skill levels in enjoyable and meaningful ways. For example, growing tropical houseplants from kitchen scraps such as avocado seeds and pineapple tops, or create a sensory herb garden such as basil, parsley, mint and chives on the windowsill using empty tin cans. Sprouting seeds is also an ideal way to produce some salad sprouts especially in tiny spaces, whilst teaching children about the journey of food from field to fork. Children’s learning can be bought outdoors in easy and educational activities. For example, using flowers for solving maths equations, examining soil, roots and shoots for biology lessons and the web of life. 

Other activities that children, adults and older adults can incorporate into their lifestyle include sowing, growing, weeding and watering vegetables, fruits, plants, shrubs and flowers. Those that new to gardening can start small, growing in little pots or tin cans. Salad greens such as lettuce, rocket and chard are easy to grow in small spaces, and many baby leaf greens are ready to harvest in only 4-5 weeks. It is important to note that gardens can be everywhere, by the front door, steps, balcony, a rooftop or community gardens and allotments and all count towards maintaining wellbeing and mental health. Gardening offers a place where trial and error is welcome, so imagination can flow freely about what to grow. The work also never ends with gardening, the care and maintenance will keep gardeners active for at least 10 months of the year. Engagement in such activities will allow adults working from home to take regular breaks and reduce sedentary behaviour; children studying remotely or being home-schooled to reflect on their learning and reduce the stress associated with learning; families to interact with each other in a meaningful way and reduce feelings of helplessness and loneliness in older adults beyond the current climate. 

Dr Vaithehy Shanmuganathan-Felton is a Senior Lecturer in Mental health and Wellbeing in Sport and Exercise at University of Roehampton. 

Dr Luke Felton is a Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology of Human Performance at University of Roehampton.

Celia Briseid is the Growhampton Project Manager at University of Roehampton. 

Betty Maitland is a Research Assistant at University of Roehampton.

References

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