How Gardening Became the Self-Care Staple I Never Knew I Needed
Facing a lot of uncertainty in spring 2020, I found digging in the dirt and growing some greens therapeutic. Here’s why psychologists say they aren’t surprised.
After being furloughed in March of 2020 (I had been a publicist and social media manager), I was worrying a lot about what was ahead. On one of my lowest days, my fiancé persuaded me to join him outside and build a garden in the backyard of our Woodbury, New Jersey, home.
We plotted out the beds and filled them with compost soil. I noticed I was becoming less and less paralyzed by my anxiety over my job as we worked. Day after day I started to look forward to our gardening work. It allowed me to be creative. It brought me joy.
And it turns out, I’m not alone in finding therapeutic benefits to spending some time with plants.
Haley Neidich, a St. Petersburg, Florida–based licensed clinical social worker, has been recommending gardening to her clients for years. It can be a powerful self-care tool, she says. “We have become so accustomed to multitasking and being totally plugged-in during our everyday lives. Gardening requires that we focus only on one thing at a time and that we are fully present in the moment,” Neidich says.
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This is called the “flow” state, and it occurs during meditation or mindfulness practice. It’s when you feel engaged in what you’re doing and generally like you’re making progress (it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re doing is especially difficult, but it’s holding your attention and interest), according to psychological research. Gardening can put you in a flow state, Neidich says, which is generally really good for mental health and well-being.
Gardening can also help some people process difficult emotions, Neidich says.
This could explain the range of feelings I felt when I picked up the hobby. My anxiety was in overdrive, possibly from my job loss, and at first I doubted my ability to grow tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. But when I saw my first bean sprout, I was elated, as though that bean was a reminder that I could handle uncertainty. I felt the anxiety melt away during the journey to that first sprout, and knowing that I myself had cultivated my cherry tomatoes made them taste even sweeter.
Research Shows Gardening Is Good for Well-Being
Paul Camic, PhD, a professor of psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University and University College London, has led multiple studies that all show horticultural activities can indeed yield mental health benefits.
In one review study, Dr. Camic’s team concluded that across multiple studies, the addition of gardening to a treatment plan for depression was linked to benefits in emotional, social, vocational, physical, and spiritual well-being. Gardening also alleviated people’s depression and anxiety symptoms, according to that research.
“[The data showed that] gardening provided a space of one’s own, a meaningful activity, increased feelings of connectedness, and improved physical and mental health,” Camic says. It doesn’t surprise Camic that people are taking to gardening now during a global pandemic, considering that well-being (particularly the type linked to having meaning and purpose in life) is significantly higher for individuals who take up gardening, he says.
Other research suggests gardening helps provide relief from acute stress and negative mood. And?a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that just being around green space or plants for as little as 40 seconds can help with mood and focus afterward.
Think of any time you spend in a garden or green space as an opportunity for a mental reset.
A Seasonal Activity Can Definitely Still Be a Year-Round Self-Care Practice
For me, even though gardening is a seasonal activity, it’s been a year-round self-care practice. In the fall, I got to enjoy harvesting my summer bounty and planting leafy produce that loves the occasional cold blast. During the coldest months of the year, I tended my indoor tropical tree collection. I bought entirely too many indoor potted plants, and I took pride in helping my fiddle leaf fig and rubber tree survive the below-freezing winter temperatures.
I’m just now beginning my shopping for the months of warmer-weather gardening ahead, and I’m looking forward to digging dirt, sowing seeds, and spreading soil.
For me, gardening has given me a new sense of purpose; during a year of upheaval and uncertainty, it has been grounding.
How to Start Your Own Gardening Self-Care Habit
Neidich says you can reap the benefits of gardening no matter where you live, the size of garden space you have access to, or even if you don't have access to an outdoor garden of your own. “There are psychological benefits to tending to indoor plants or stepping outside to appreciate someone else's garden. The idea is to slow down, disconnect from devices, and focus your complete energy on the task at hand,” she says.
If you want to test out your green thumb, here are three easy ways to get started, offered by?Bridget Bueche, an organic farming consultant and a former professional chef in Newport Beach, California.
- Start with what you love. If you don’t know what to grow, start with the foods you love to eat, Bueche recommends. It’ll make you more willing to nurture your plants, she says. “And will make the finished product more rewarding.” If you want to start with something that’s easy for beginners to grow, try radishes, parsley, chives, cilantro, basil, lettuce, snow peapod, or zucchini, says Bueche.
- Dig into a good foundation. “Healthy, clean, and nutrient-dense soil is the key to great success in planting anything,” says Bueche. Different types of plants thrive in different soils. Learn a little bit about the ground you’re digging into, or if it’s a potted or indoor garden, what type of soil will work best for the plant you want to grow. Some plants do best in drier soils, while others like to stay moist all the time. Consider drainage and sun exposure when picking outdoor spots, too. Ask questions at your local garden shop or nursery. ??
- Use an app. Learn more about what you’re planting with a gardening app like Planta, which gives insight to each individual plant. “Your cellphone can be a great gardening tool. Set your alarm to remind yourself when to water,” Bueche says.