From bringing communities together to decreasing anxiety and your risk of diabetes, gardening has been shown to have numerous health benefits. Numerous studies on gardening’s effect on various aspects of health seem to indicate that, generally speaking, gardening is good for you.
To examine this, a recent study conducted a meta-analysis on 21 different studies investigating the effect of gardening on physical or psychological well-being. In combining the data from all 21 studies into a single study, the researchers were able to judge the general effect of gardening on health and wellbeing across a variety of studies and contexts. The results indicated that gardening has a positive overall effect on health and wellbeing, and that gardening was particularly effective in decreasing depression and anxiety.1
How does gardening decrease depression and anxiety?
From a clinical research perspective, the positive effects of gardening on anxiety make sense. Most obviously, gardening provides a way to engage with nature. As research on wilderness therapy, horticultural therapy, and urban green spaces indicate, spending time in nature is associated with increased emotion regulation, decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the area associated with rumination), and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety.2, 3, 4
Additionally, gardening is rich with opportunities to practice mindfulness, the process of being aware of the present moment without judgment.5 For example, while gardening, you may notice the colors of the plants, the rich diversity of textures in the soil, and the smell of the earth and the flowers. While gardening, you must also fully engage and participate in the task so as not to over- or under-water your plants, incorrectly space the seeds you are planting, or pull out some flowers instead of those pesky weeds.
All of these acts and sensations, so integrally a part of gardening, require you to be mindful. Given that mindfulness has been shown to be an important mechanism of symptom change in depression and anxiety across a variety of therapies, it makes clinical sense that the mental aspects of gardening can decrease depression and anxiety as well.
Finally, while gardening may seem like a relatively sedentary activity, gardening can provide aerobic exercise via weeding, trimming, and raking. Additionally, gardening activities such as spading, lifting, raking, and tilling both strength and tone your muscles, providing you with good anaerobic exercise. Considering that even mild exercise has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, it logically follows that the physical aspects of gardening have an effect on depression and anxiety as well.
So, should we all start gardening?
While there is a significant amount of evidence on gardening’s health benefits, your preferences still matter. For example, if you absolutely hate dirt, gardening probably won’t do you any good. Additionally, given that gardening assumes ability and access to green spaces, gardening tools, and plants, it is also important to note that you can receive the benefits of nature, exercise, and mindfulness through other activities such as creative arts like dance and art. In other words, at the end of the day, it’s not so much about what you’re doing, so much as it is about the skills that you are practicing.
1. Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., & Yamaura, Y. (2016). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 92-99.
2. Gonzalez, M.T., Hartig, T., Patil, G.G., Martinsen, E.W., Kirkevold, M., 2010. Therapeutic horticulture in clinical depression: a prospective study of active components. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66, 2002–2013.
3. Dye, C., 2008. Health and urban living. Science, 319, 766–769.
4. Bratman, N. G., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS, 28,8567-8572.
5. Roemer, L. & Orsillo, S. M. (2009). Mindfulness- and acceptance-based behavioral therapies in practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Carol S. Lee is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with a background in psychology from the University of California San Diego. Her research with Dr. Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton focuses on understanding the effectiveness of anxiety disorder treatments, especially in the context of engaging in behavior despite fear or anxiety. Carol and Dr. Hayes-Skelton co-author articles for Anxiety.org, blending social and clinical psychology in their work.