I love it when science backs up things we already know to be true. I’ve known for years that gardening is good for my own mental health; it’s one of my favorite forms of self-care. I garden for many reasons. I think the main reason I love it is because it helps feed my need for creativity, by which I mean creating something that gives me a sense of satisfaction. I love planting seeds and sets and caring for them and watching them grow. I love seeing the beauty of nature in my own space, and how just having a garden invites other little critters and birds, and bees into my home. I love seeing the fruits of my labor, and the best part, harvesting what I’ve grown. In some ways it’s like being a therapist, when you nurture someone and watch them grow and change and become the best version of themselves and really blossom. That’s the best part of therapy, too.
Gardening is an easy recommendation for self-care for those who are so inclined. Getting outside and connecting with nature helps remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, as anyone who has gardened knows that if you neglect your garden, it will wither and die and get eaten by bugs. Humans are the same way. If we do not tend to ourselves, if we do not pay attention to what we need, we will not thrive; we will wilt and fail to bear fruit, and any fruit we do bear will be weak and possibly infested. Exposure to the sun also helps us absorb more Vitamin D, and Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increased rates of depression. So yes, let the sunshine in if you want to boost your mood. When I work with clients who are struggling with depression or just low threshold moodiness, I often encourage them to get outside and take a daily walk. Just being out in the sunshine and moving around can be enough to get your mind out of a rut and clear your head a little.
The good news is that tending to our gardens, both physical and metaphorical, is excellent for our mental health. Science is increasingly finding support for the connection between our gut health and our mental health. Emerging evidence indicates that our gut bacteria impacts our immunes systems AND our moods, amongst other things. Research also supports letting your kids play outside in the mud, as the exposure to outdoor microbes improves their immune systems. Scientists are just now starting to understand the connection between gut health and specifically Soil-Based Organisms, or the bacteria found in dirt. The preliminary research being done on rodents indicates that a specific strand of bacteria found in soil, M. Vaccae, reduces anxiety and helps mice be less submissive in relationships with other dominant mice. (Improved assertiveness? Can I get a vitamin for that?) Studies on humans have focused on the use of this particular strand of bacteria in the use of probiotics with PTSD patients. Research in humans is ongoing and we don’t have any hard evidence to suggest that probiotics alone can help reduce anxiety or depression in humans. There are a lot of mitigating individual factors, such as how severe the mental health conditions are, the amount of probiotics taken, and the method of introduction. Science is always looking for a way to makes pills out of something, so it’s not surprising that the research has focused on giving people probiotics orally, rather than having them absorb them naturally by actually getting their hands dirty. The strands of bacteria also make a difference, so just because there’s probiotics in your yogurt doesn’t mean that you’re getting the same effects as playing in the dirt. Another strain, Bifidobacteria longum, has been found to help people cope with mild anxiety and memory problems, as well as lowering their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research also has found that seniors who garden have lower risks of dementia.
You don’t have to wait for science to make happy-dirt-pills for you, though. You can benefit from gardening now, without eating any yogurt. You also don’t need a lot of space for your garden, as container gardening is a great option for those without a big yard or much outdoor space. Some places also have community gardens that you can rent a plot in and plant whatever you want there. In my town there is a community garden at a neighborhood park, and I’ve heard of some apartment complexes doing the same thing. Whether you decide to go with flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, vegetables or herbs for your own dinner table, or just landscaping your outdoor space to create a tranquil spot for rest and relaxation, getting your hands dirty can help boost your mood and give you a sense of serenity and control in a mad, mad world.
Last year, my family moved from a house where we had a huge yard that I had built a big garden in to a townhome where I have considerably less outdoor space. The downsizing was good in many ways, but I do miss my big garden. However, I switched strategies, and decided to just focus on a couple containers and edible landscaping to feed my need for a Zen outdoor space. Now, I just have a couple barrels, one for cherry tomatoes and one for herbs that has rosemary, mint, and parsley. I planted Lavender along my fence borders and we put some banana trees along the back fence, which gives us both green privacy, and, as of this year, bananas! The lavender is mostly getting munched on by my bunnies, but I don’t care, it’s not like I was going to make that lavender cupcake recipe I had pinned anytime soon anyways because let’s face it, I don’t bake. They also ate all my basil and dill, but I’d rather see them eat it than have the bugs get to it before I remember to make pesto. Luckily, rabbits don’t eat tomato leaves, so they’ve left that barrel alone for now. For me, the combination of the sunshine, the physical exertion, the sense of accomplishment when I’ve finished planting, and the reward of seeing
that tiny, tiny eggplant my hard work bear fruit probably does more for my mood that the bacteria I might be getting under my fingernails. Yet it’s nice to know that making gardening a prolonged habit will likely boost my overall immune system and improve my mental health at a biological level as well as a psychological level.