Anyone who gardens regularly is usually more than happy to tell their non-gardening friends all about the psychological, physical and social benefits they gain from the experience. And with research beginning to confirm this, gardening as a method for therapy has been growing in popularity throughout the country.For good reason. In a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, American adults report on average that their stress levels are higher than they believe to be healthy.“Nature can be its own therapist,” says Jean Larson, manager of nature-based therapeutic services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, Minn., and professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.She refers to it as the effect of your “brain on nature,” with all components firing and working together as nature intended. This engages the reptile brain (the most primitive part that includes the fight-or-flight mechanism), the mammalian brain (the part that helps create complex emotions) and the neocortex (also referred to as the human brain, the component that assists in advanced thinking).Ultimately, she says, even five minutes in the garden provides an “opportunity for the mind to relax and shut down your internal computer.” According to Larson, brain scans also have shown that the areas of the brain associated with loving and kindness become engaged, as does the creative and artistic side.At her NBT program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, she works with a diverse group of clients from hospitals and schools to integrate nature-based therapies for physical and psychological healing. For those with physical disabilities, the program provides adaptive tools such as raised flower beds for stroke victims to access and an area with plants that have no fragrance for those with sensory sensitivities.The point, says Larson, isn’t the end product but the process that gets them there. For example, the program provides weed gardens for clients with dementia. “It gives them a task to complete, and it’s just what the doctor ordered,” Larson explains.In Glencoe, Ill., the Chicago Botanic Garden has an “enabling garden” where veterans, mental health patients and nursing home residents, among many others, come to reduce stress and get physical exercise. Those who work with the clients see an intense transformation as the therapy progresses.“Being in the garden really seems to help even out people’s temperament and reduce stress,” says Barb Kreski, the garden’s director of horticultural therapy services. “Many of our clients have experienced traumatic events, whether they are cardiac patients or struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and just being here has made all the difference in the world.”The great news is that anyone can benefit from nature-based therapy. And you don’t have to be a master gardener to get the benefits. In fact, that may defeat the purpose entirely. “If you want perfection, visit an arboretum,” Larson says.
Getting started in the garden
1. Keep it easy. Experts suggest starting with easy-to-grow plants, like mint.
“You can look at it and it will grow,” says Jean Larson, manager of nature-based therapeutic (NBT) services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, Minn. It does need some fresh soil and drainage, she adds, but other than that, the maintenance is low. (Larson even has some planted in an old shoe in her garden.)
According to Barb Kreski, director of horticultural therapy services at the Chicago Botanic Garden, succulents are good low-maintenance choices as well — especially if you have an area that gets a lot of light.
2. Contain it. Container gardens can be a great option for beginners, especially for those with physical impairments.
“You can bring the pots onto a table and work from there,” says Kreski. It also allows you to control the soil quality. Kreski suggests using clean potting soil to ensure healthy plant growth and says many plants do well in containers, including those that produce food.
3. Go step by step. Kreski works with many clients who have a fear of getting dirty or touching the critters they encounter in the soil. In this case, she recommends going slowly and using gloves and tools to put some space between you and the dirt.
4. Watch your body. Being aware of body mechanics is very important when you’re bending down and pulling, especially if you aren’t used to it.
“Don’t be a weekend warrior,” Kreski warns.
She suggests warming up first and taking many breaks during extended gardening periods to avoid injury. In addition, she says it’s easy to raise garden beds and adapt areas for your comfort.
5. Lose the all-or-nothing thoughts. People often feel like they have to dedicate hours to the activity to gain benefits, but according to Larson, a little gardening time goes a long way. If you have small children, let them help you instead of assuming they’ll destroy your restoration process.
“Give them a little tool to dig with, and they’ll help you aerate the soil,” Larson says.
They’ll also get the same one-with-nature health benefits of your shared gardening efforts.