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Get Your Therapy in the Garden

By Jolene Hansen, Gardentech
Photographs courtesy of Gardentech

Garden lovers often say that gardening is therapy, and that assessment might be truer than you think. Gardening improves physical health and produces nutritious homegrown goodies, but its therapeutic benefits extend beyond that. From relaxation and stress relief to formal therapist-directed programs, mental and emotional wellbeing get welcome boosts along the garden path.

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Roots of Therapeutic Gardening in the U.S.

Gardening has a rich history in the United States, and its therapeutic benefits are part of that. In the late 1700s, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and Declaration of Independence signer, documented that garden settings and digging in gardens were significant factors in recovery for patients with mental illness. As a result, interest in therapeutic landscapes emerged and gardening as rehabilitation was born.

Nearly 200 years later, the first U.S. horticultural therapy curriculum was established in 1972 as part of the mental health program at Kansas State University. Since that time, therapeutic horticulture and healing gardens have blossomed in U.S. settings as diverse as hospitals, schoolyards and prison grounds. Sensory-oriented, plant-dominated and packed with fragrance, color and texture, these gardens may be meant for passive enjoyment or active work. Either way, visitors enjoy therapeutic benefits that include reduced stress and anxiety, and increased hope and happiness.

Curative Nature of Garden Settings

Interacting with nature — even in the simple act of viewing trees or visiting garden-like settings — can have dramatic therapeutic results. Post-surgical hospital patients who viewed trees out their hospital windows have been shown to recover more quickly than similar patients who viewed walls. Not only were hospital stays shortened, tree-viewing patients had fewer complications, took fewer painkillers and got fewer negative chart comments from attending staff.

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Merely seeing a garden from a balcony was shown to improve mood in both depressed and non-depressed elderly participants in one study. However, actually visiting the garden and walking or sitting in it did even more. Participants felt less depressed and reported improvements in mood, sleep quality and concentration, as well as greater peace of mind and hopefulness. Research also shows that time in garden settings can ease symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, including aggression and agitation, and reduce the use of "as-needed" medications.

Beneficial Consequences of Plant Care

Like outdoor garden settings, viewing green plants in indoor living spaces can perk up your spirits and your sense of wellbeing. But the benefits of caring for a living plant, even a single houseplant, transcend green views. Studies show that caring for a plant has particular value for people facing challenging personal circumstances beyond their control that negatively affect physical and emotional health.

In one study, elderly assisted-living residents received a four-week class on indoor plant care and were given responsibility for a plant. Compared with non-gardening residents, the indoor gardeners had significantly higher self-ratings of health, happiness and quality of life. Staff also noted the gardeners required less staff care, were more alert and social, and took greater responsibility for their actions and choices. Indoor gardening has also been shown to reduce agitation and improve sleep and awareness in dementia patients. Feeling needed and in control of a plant's wellbeing improve the caretaker's wellbeing, too.

Healing Power of Gardening, Growing and Community

When rating gardening benefits, gardeners often note reductions in stress, tension and anxiety. Research proves this is more than a feeling. One study had participants complete a psychologically stressful task and then measured cortisol, a hormone the body produces in response to stress. Periods of gardening or reading followed. While both groups showed lower levels of cortisol after these activities, the gardening group was significantly lower, indicating greater physical relief from acute stress. They also reported greater improvement in their moods.

Community gardens show great promise as effective extensions of therapy for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug or alcohol dependency, and even for children and adults faced with the typical stresses of modern urban life. Working together, tending gardens and growing food, in particular, yield remarkable benefits. These include improvements in self-esteem, teamwork, social interaction, planning, problem solving and coping skills, as well as a passion for gardening and community that may continue throughout life.

Three months of growing fruits and vegetables in a therapeutic communal gardening program resulted in significant decreases in depression and cognitive distortion for patients diagnosed with clinical depression. Those findings still held true three months after the program's end. Children in a juvenile rehabilitation center who participated in a gardening program learned to manage their emotions and behaviors more effectively and emerged with vastly improved opinions of themselves. Most of them also indicated they intended to continue gardening after their stay.

Whether your garden time is spent enjoying the results of someone else's efforts or digging in with a spade and hoe, gardens and gardening can help bring peace and healing to lives. GardenTech and the family of GardenTech® brands stand ready to help you reap all the benefits that gardens and gardening have to offer.

GardenTech is a registered trademark of Gulfstream Home & Garden, Inc.


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Photographs courtesy of Ball Ingenuity

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