As a kid, I spent many happy hours in the garden scooping dirt into a bucket of water to make mud. The fun part was squelching the sodden soil between my fingers and shaping it into mud pies and dirt cakes, which I decorated with all manner of things – pebbles, twigs, feathers, flowers – whatever I could find or forage. Making mud pies was a play activity that kept me entertained for hours. Sadly, today it is a forgotten joy of childhood – perhaps too simple or too messy for the times we live in.
Dirt is good for us, in several ways. Emerging studies are showing that a dirt deficiency in childhood may contribute to illness and allergies including asthma and mental disorders. A joint study by the University of Bristol and University College London reports that certain “good” bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae) found in ground soil may be a natural antidepressant that activates the “happy” chemical serotonin.
So, get out into the garden, discard the gloves and get a little dirt on your hands! It has many therapeutic benefits. Here’s some of them.
1. Boost body and brain health
Gardening is great exercise for the body and the mind. It gives you a robust physical workout, especially if you’re digging, trimming trees and pruning. But gardening also keeps your mind active, which may improve cognitive processes like attention, concentration and memory.
2. Improve mental and social well-being
Since ancient times, gardens were thought to be healing spaces. Ancient Egyptian physicians prescribed walks around a garden for patients with afflictions of the mind. During the Middle Ages, monastery hospitals used the sight and scent of plants to cheer up melancholy patients. Today, there is considerable research being undertaken about horticultural therapy. A recent study by Harvard University’s Public Health Graduate School found that people living in an area rich in vegetation have lower levels of depression. Other studies show that gardening has significant therapeutic benefits for people suffering from dementia, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress by improving their mood and sociability.
3. Relieve stress and insomnia
Gardening is a welcome antidote to the speed and stresses of modern life. Growing plants engages you with the natural world, at a slower pace. It induces a “flow state” where background noise and distractions seem to fade away, helping you to switch off and decompress. Plus, a session of hard work in the garden can be tiring enough to ease sleeplessness, help you sleep better, and even boost your productivity.
4. Get a shot of pure bliss
Growing and harvesting home-grown food is thought to trigger the release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain, creating a natural feeling of delight or mild euphoria. Researchers hypothesise that this response goes back more than 200,00 years to the time when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, foraging for wild animals and plants, and using forest gardens as a food production system.
5. Gain perspective
Orderly and thriving or wild and overgrown, gardens are a symbol of regeneration and the perpetual cycle of life. Gardens teach us persistence and tenacity – just think of a seed germinating and reaching for the sun. Gardens remind us of the transient nature of existence and the importance of living in the moment, rejoicing in successes and not sweating the small stuff.
6. Sharpen your senses
Taking the time to see, hear, touch and smell the richness of nature is not only restorative, it sharpens your awareness and observation skills, in addition to letting you appreciate the beauty that surrounds you.
7. A lesson in life
What makes gardening unique, as opposed to other great hobbies such as painting, knitting or model-making, is that it physically connects you to the earth and to other living things. Working with soil, tending to plants, propagating cuttings and encouraging seeds to sprout is a reminder of the wonder and magic of nature. It teaches love, patience, calm and resilience, problem solving skills and encourages confidence.
8. Reduce anxiety and increase relaxation
Tending to plants is a great way to unwind and relax in a safe and warm space, which helps reduce feelings of anxiety and gain a sense of control. Planning a garden design, selecting colour schemes, making decisions about the type of plants you want to incorporate, and nurturing and caring for them is a healing process that helps you sort, clarify and focus your thoughts.
9. Soothe your soul
Any gardener will tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than creating a beautiful green space, filled with blooms, flourishing succulents and thriving shrubs. The growth and survival of a plant is a powerful reinforcement of life. When we create beauty around us, it creates beauty within us too.
10. Escape, relax and breathe
Sigmund Freud said: “Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.” The solitude of gardening and the peacefulness of a garden allows you to escape from other people and their demands and expectations. Gardens are a private place to let your defences down and escape from the world and its pressures, if only for a short time.
Gardening is more than just another hobby or form of exercise. It’s a therapy that can boost your health and happiness, help you find yourself, express your personality and let your spirit soar.
(When using potting mix it is recommended you follow the suppliers directions and health warnings and always wash your hands).