Gardening as Self-Care

by Laura Schwarz

Over the past few years, I’ve started seeing gardening as more than a hobby—it’s one of my most effective forms of self-care. Gardening is calming and centering. I usually work in my garden alone, which gives me time and space for reflection. I improve my strength and maintain my cardiovascular health while also receiving vitamin D from the sunshine. I create, attempt, problem solve, fail, learn, succeed. As my plants grow, my confidence grows alongside them, especially when I try something new and it actually turns out as I had hoped or intended. Along with tangible harvests of flowers and veggies, I cultivate patience, resourcefulness and imagination.

Working in my garden eases my mind and stimulates my senses. I feel sun and wind on my skin; I listen to bird songs and buzzing insects; I smell sweet flowers and pungent herbs. It’s liberating to turn my mind off and relax, losing track of everyday worries and anxieties as I focus on trimming, watering and weeding. Most days, I can reliably improve my moods by simply interacting with my plants. (And yes, I do talk to them!)

 

SCIENCE AGREES!

I recently read a list of mental health wellness tips, published online by a New York psychologist. Her list of 25 actions we can take to improve our mental health included many that are easily accomplished through gardening. These eight especially resonated with me.

  1. Participating in a creative art (I’ve heard gardening referred to as “the slowest of the performing arts”)
  2. Spending time outside for at least 30 minutes each day
  3. Being active for at least 30 minutes each day
  4. Noticing the good in the world (flowers and butterflies and sunshine, oh my!)
  5. Finding something tangible that you can control (and then controlling it)
  6. Committing to a long-term project
  7. Engaging in repetitive movements
  8. Helping others

Tearing up a corner of your yard or planting a new vegetable garden can be a great workout, and exercise can improve your mental health in many ways (list item #3). The repetitive movements of weeding, raking, digging, mulching and watering can have calming effects on our bodies and minds. Research shows that repetitive movement can soothe humans, helping us remain steady under pressure. Participating in repetitive tasks can also relieve our brains of the worry and anxiety we might be regularly experiencing (#7).

Aside from physical exertion, you’ll also expend creative energy as you figure out how to arrange your plants in garden beds and container plantings. Creativity helps us relieve and process emotions, especially feelings of stress or anguish (#1). Tending a garden can serve as a small exercise in control as we make decisions that produce immediate results. The ability to control something, no matter how minor, can empower and anchor us, especially during times of uncertainty (#5). Since new plants need continued care over time as they establish and grow, gardening is always a long-term project, one that can distract us and focus our energy on the future instead of on any present-day stressors (#6).

In spite of my own reclusive gardening tendencies, gardening is inherently community-oriented. You can grow extra produce or cut flowers to share with your neighbors. Thinning and dividing your perennial gardens will inevitably lead to excess plants that you can give to other gardeners. People in your community will appreciate any and all beauty your garden provides, and it will bring them joy! Contributing to the well-being of others gives us a sense of agency when we might otherwise feel overwhelmed or powerless (#8).

I once heard someone say, “Gardening is the time to be your own best friend.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I feel lucky that my favorite hobby is so good for my overall well-being, too.

 

Minneapolis-based horticulturist Laura Schwarz is the Garden Solutions columnist for Northern Gardener magazine.

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