Other kids hated weeding, but not me. I especially liked using a weed fork, jamming its prongs deep into the soil and pulling them out. There would be the soft crunching sound of roots as they split and broke, and a faint wet scent like earth sprinkled from the ground. After pulling out every last trace of weeds and patting the soil, I was covered in dirt, sweat, plant sap—and a sense of accomplishment.
I would go so far as to describe such an experience as therapeutic. Certainly, as a new study in the scientific journal PLOS One makes clear, mental health professionals have good reason to consider the possibility that gardening—as well as making art, which is familiar to anyone in the know with the current art therapy craze – it can be a powerful mental health treatment.
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“Engagement in gardening and art-making activities resulted in significant therapeutic improvements for total self-reported mood disturbance, depressive symptomatology, and perceived stress with varying effect sizes after eight one-hour treatment sessions,” the authors explained after elaborating how 42 healthy female volunteers were randomly assigned to parallel gardening and art groups for the experiment. “Gardening also resulted in improvements for indicators of trait anxiety.”
Because the sample size was so small, the PLOS One study obviously can’t be the final word on whether gardening helps with mental illness. Study co-author Charles L. Guy, a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, agreed as much when speaking to Salon via email.
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“The best evidence can be found in meta-analyses, which are studies that collect a group of similar studies (usually with small numbers of participants) on a given topic and statistically combine the results from the included studies to produce a determination stronger treatment outcome results,” Guy wrote to Salon. Guy cited six different meta-analysis studies over the years that showed “that gardening or gardening therapy provides therapeutic benefits including mental health benefits.” Together, he argued that the studies provide evidence that is “compelling but still insufficient compared to most medical practices based on equivocal clinical evidence.”
He added, “However, what gardening does have are literally millions of anecdotal accounts of self-perceived therapeutic benefits. I say from an experimental medical science perspective that the therapeutic benefits of gardening are hiding in plain sight, waiting to be tested and scientifically demonstrated”.
“A misconception that many may have is that gardening is simple. It’s not. It’s a complex activity and in an experiential sense, it’s a very complicated form of treatment.”
More and more scientists are trying to provide those scientific demonstrations. Last year, a paper in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening found that Italians who practiced gardening to cope with anxiety related to COVID-19 reported “lower psychopathological distress through reduced anxiety related to COVID-19.” Recently, researchers from several Michigan colleges interviewed a predominantly African-American sample of 28 gardeners in Detroit; their findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, were simply that people who gardened “reported that gardening improved their mood, relieved stress, was an important part of their spirituality, contributed to increased their personal well-being and provided an opportunity to help others. These findings suggest that gardening can improve physical and mental health among diverse groups.”
However, that doesn’t mean one should feel comfortable just picking up a weed fork and digging into the ground.
“Gardening as we delivered it in our study was well planned and organized just as horticultural therapy is a very designed and planned treatment,” Guy noted. “A misconception that many may have is that gardening is simple. It’s not. It’s a complex activity and in an experiential sense, it’s a very complicated form of treatment.”
However, even though gardening itself is complex, human connections with plants are as fundamental as our own history.
“During the course of our evolution, we were surrounded by plants that have always provided a significant portion of our nutritional needs long before agriculture, provided a place to live, shelter, and protection from the elements and animals that could harm us. ,” Guy. Salon said. “Even in our modern world, plants are essential to our overall health and well-being.”
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