Why gardening is a treat for your mind and body

This week’s article is written by Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens.
Why gardening is a treat for your mind and body

Winter aconites and snowdrops herald the arrival of spring and provide hope for gardening days to come.

BEING in your garden, surrounding yourself with beautiful plants and doing simple, physical and manual tasks such as dead heading, weeding and watering, can relax the mind and calm the spirit.

Gardening activities can assist in improving both your mental and physical health and wellbeing.

When we are gardening, we automatically relax the mind and isolate ourselves from the stressful and worrying issues of everyday life and this enables us to take a break from the problems that may be upsetting us. Keeping fit and healthy is important at any time, but during the coronavirus pandemic, it is critical. 

If you have a garden or outdoor space, then you have a place that you can use to maintain your health and wellbeing.

Gardening provides us with a place for experiencing nature which is proven to benefit mental health, cognitive functioning and emotional wellbeing. It also reduces depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease as well as increasing life satisfaction, quality of life and sense of community.

Gardens are essential to supporting recovery from illness and, merely looking at them can reduce stress, blood pressure and muscle tension.

Above all this, the recent lockdowns provide the time and opportunity to create the garden you always wanted, producing a sense of pride and of course pleasure for you and your whole household.

It's great to introduce children to gardening.
It's great to introduce children to gardening.

It is also the perfect time to introduce children to gardening by encouraging them to prepare their own growing areas and sow seeds. This gives them a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Remote schooling is new for most students and hands-on activities like gardening can encourage children to participate in a way that will enhance learning. 

Gardening can teach young, pre-school and primary -aged children, to reinforce skills such as measurements, addition, subtraction, counting, sorting into categories and colours.

Practicing motor skills and learning work ethic are also life-skills taught through gardening.

That need for connection emerges time and again when gardeners speak of what attracts them to the soil. With the disappearance of so many intimate encounters, the notion of immersing our hands in the soil has gained quite a lot of momentum because we all have something in our nature that requires contact with the earth.

Research has found a certain soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae), has some amazing stress-relieving abilities when we naturally breathe it in or inadvertently swallow it while outdoors. A 2004 study found cancer patients treated with this bacterium showed a noticeable improvement in mood and mental state. Follow-up studies found mice completed mazes faster after being fed this same microbe; they also showed changes in brain chemistry similar to taking an antidepressant.

Being out in a garden increases the feelgood chemicals in our brains. Picture: Stock
Being out in a garden increases the feelgood chemicals in our brains. Picture: Stock

I read recently that scientists have discovered M. vaccae makes an anti-inflammatory fat in the body, this could explain its mood-boosting properties.

Stress is known to cause inflammation in our bodies, which leads to a number of health problems like depression. Though that connection is not totally understood, it does seem the anti-inflammatory substance in this bacterium has the ability to counteract our natural stress responses.

In 1989, epidemiologist David Strachan first floated an idea called the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. The idea is that when children grow up away from nature, in cities for example, they are not exposed to enough micro-organisms and their immune systems are weaker as a result.

Another study, in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, found a link with improved mood, more frequent feeling of happiness, and a sense of soothing in the presence of flowers. 

It turns out that the visual and physical stimulation of working or being in or around a garden increases feelgood chemicals in our brains, such as dopamine and serotonin, improving our mood and mental health.

One noteworthy thing many gardeners may have noticed is that, although the entire world may have changed, our gardens have not and that in itself can provide us with great solace. There are certain, very strong forces in gardening that can ground us when we are feeling unstable and uncertain, it’s these predictable outcomes that make the rhythms of the garden very comforting.

Gardening isn’t just another form of labour; it is also an act of artistic expression because, when we create something of beauty, it fills us with pride and triggers a chemical response in our bodies that makes us feel good.

If coronavirus has created the age of distancing, gardening is surely the antidote, creating a promise of contact with something real. 

The garden appeals to all of the body - from the smell, to the touch - a whole sensory experience. Picture: Stock
The garden appeals to all of the body - from the smell, to the touch - a whole sensory experience. Picture: Stock

It appeals to all of the body, giving us sensory pleasures like hearing songbirds and insects, tasting herbs, the smell of soil and flowers, the warm sun and even satisfying ache after a hard day’s work. While the virtual world of television, computers, mobile phones, and the internet may have its own ability to absorb attention, it is not immersive in the way gardening can be, because gardens are a reminder that there are limits to what can be done without physical presence and, just like handshakes and hugs, we cannot garden through a screen.

In general, gardening is very positive for mental wellbeing. In these uncertain times, it especially helps release anxiety by connecting with nature.

It gives people the opportunity to do something both beautiful and useful and provides a sense of security. It is empowering to watch and nurture a plant from seed to maturity then care for it until its demise. Gardening is not only a fun pastime or hobby, it’s also a means to be more active and enjoy all the benefits that come with it.

So, if you would like to get more actively involved in gardening, and even make new friends, why not volunteer in a large garden or estate like we have here in Blarney Castle? We operate volunteer days twice a week, Wednesdays and Fridays, email deputygardener@blarneycastle.ie for more information.

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