Gardening may prevent mental illness

February 25, 2021

Gardening is good for your mental health. (Unsplash/NeONBRAND)

A British horticulture study demonstrated for the first time that tending to a home garden multiple times per week specifically can improve well-being and reduce stress, as well as offer physical benefits, with its authors arguing that domestic gardens should accordingly be given greater prominence in urban planning debates.

The popular hobby has previously been linked with greater physical fitness levels in adults, but the mental health effects of gardening have not been widely studied. The study, published Feb. 10 in Cities, found significant associations between improvements in well-being, perceived stress and physical activity and more frequent gardening among British adults. Gardening at least 2–3 times a week also corresponded with the greatest perceived health benefits. This study is the first to show that perceived health benefits increased in line with the frequency of gardening activities.

In their paper, the researchers investigated the primary drivers for people to take part in gardening. It is one of four collaborative research papers published on gardening from Ross Cameron, a director of research at the University of Sheffield, and Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui, a postdoctoral researcher at the same university. 

The researchers said that home gardens provide opportunities for psychological and physical health benefits, and yet these spaces have received less attention in terms of their therapeutic value compared to other urban green spaces like public parks. It’s estimated that 49% of U.K. adults take part in gardening, and 78% of homeowners in the U.S. garden on a regular basis. 

“Politically, this sort of thing is important. It’s about prevention rather than cure, and we all know mental health issues are on the rise,” Cameron told The Academic Times. “The positive things you enjoy doing are actually really quite important for longer-term mental health.”

For people who live in urban areas, the authors said in the paper, parks, nature reserves, tree-lined streets and gardens are important locations to relax, find restoration from stress, engage with physical activity and help restore a sense of balance in one’s life.

A survey was administered online to 6,015 U.K. adults, including 5,766 who identified themselves as gardeners and 249 who were non-gardeners. The participants were more likely to be older adults, women and homeowners, and the data were collected in 2016 and 2017, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey asked participants questions including what type of building they lived in, the community spirit in their neighborhood, how regularly they garden, why they garden, if they have any health issues that prevent them from gardening, the state of their garden and if they are happy with it, and if they have ever felt therapeutic benefits from their garden.

Additionally, the participants took the Shortened Warwick and Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scale, which evaluates mental well-being using statements about thoughts and feelings, as well as the Perceived Stress Scale, which is a classic stress assessment that typically asks about one’s thoughts and feelings over the last month.

The participants gave differing reasons for why they garden. More than 50% reported that they garden for pleasure and enjoyment, about 30% cited sensory reasons and about 30% said they garden to see plants and flowers grow. About 25% cited a love of the activity, and about 25% said health benefits were a factor in their gardening habits.

Well-being scores across the sample decreased as gardening activity became less frequent. Participants were asked if they considered any aspects of gardening to be therapeutic, and 20% said gardening was particularly good for providing relaxation, 16% said stress relief, 14% said space for reflection, 13% said help with episodes of depression and 13% said physical exercise. 

The data showed that more frequent gardening of at least 2–3 times per week corresponded to reductions in perceived stress, increased subjective well-being and increased self-reported physical activity levels. 

“Despite the increasing evidence around the value of domestic gardens for health and other ecosystem services, they are often not a priority for policy makers and planners,” the authors said in the paper. “Residential garden size is getting smaller. Some planners/developers now omit gardens in new housing schemes completely, especially where urban space is at a premium.”

The authors said that their data supports the notion that domestic gardens should have more representation in urban planning debates due to the role they play in providing health benefits, arguing that gardens should receive more protections in the U.K. and that they cannot be sacrificed with the increased densification of cities.

“It may not be gardening, it may be that you prefer to go fishing. But it doesn’t really matter what it is — you need to have a balance in your life where the work and the pleasure are more equally balanced,” Cameron said.

The authors recommended that policymakers and planners need to better appreciate the positive contribution of residential home gardens to citizen’s health, as well as to urban ecosystem services, when evaluating types of green space. Home gardening may also have potential as a specific health intervention within eco-therapy, for example, they said. 

Data for this study was collected prior to the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns in the U.K. The authors noted that the coronavirus has caused people to be more concerned about their health, and it has significantly altered social behavior. Stay-at-home orders led to an increase in personal hobbies, including domestic gardening. 

“It’s been interesting in the COVID period. [The results are] backed up with anecdotal evidence that the garden may very well offer a respite from the stresses and strains of the current pandemic,” Cameron said. 

“It does actually seem to be quite protective against some of these mental health issues. You can almost literally see people turning off the news and all the negative thoughts, and going out and doing some gardening, and losing themselves. And that’s actually providing a bit of protection,” he said. 

The study, “Why garden? – Attitudes and the perceived health benefits of home gardening,” was published Feb. 10 in the Cities journal. Ross Cameron and Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui, both of the University of Sheffield, were the lead authors. Alistair Griffiths, of the Royal Horticultural Society U.K., Jenny Roe, of the University of Virginia, and Timothy Heaton, of the University of Sheffield, all served as co-authors. 

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