Everybody on Instagram seems to have a fiddle-leaf fig in the background of their photos, and with good reason: a bit of greenery in is good for your brain as well as your pics. Growing a garden yourself has great mental health benefits, even if all you have is a windowsill and one hopeful cactus. Therapists say you don’t have to have a giant backyard or a vegetable patch to get a mental health boost from gardening. It’s also particularly helpful for people who are vulnerable or isolated.
“Working in the dirt is a very centering activity that can help to pass the time, and watering is also a very zen and meditative practice,” psychologist Dr. Gregory Nawalanic Pys.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Kansas, tells Bustle. It also provides near-instant positive reinforcement, he says; weeding, planting seedlings, or just watering a thirsty houseplant are all simple actions with pretty quick rewards that can help you feel in control of your environment.
People respond really positively to green spaces, indoors and outdoors. Research has shown that shared outdoor spaces with a lot of greenery lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Indoor gardening has many of the same effects; being surrounded by green plants inside can improve mood, and tending them alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety and makes us feel more socially connected. It’s been found that looking at nature may make the brain produce more serotonin, which could explain why some people find looking at their plant pots and gardens so calming. “These types of activities can help you feel more centered and grounded,” therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, tells Bustle.
The outdoor nature of gardening, whether it’s digging a hole in a lawn or opening the window to let your seedlings get some sunshine, is also powerful for mental health, Dr. Nawalanic says. Sunlight exposure boosts the body’s production of vitamin D, which is thought to raise levels of serotonin in the brain, helping mood.
But gardening also pulls you out of your current situation and forces you to focus on something different. “Being able to escape by gardening can provide a much-needed stress respite, and an opportunity for the more creative parts of our brain to come into play,” clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D. tells Bustle. It involves both cognitive and motor skills, he says, and occupies our full attention, which means we can forget our schedules, responsibilities, and expectations for a little bit. “The result often is a recalibration, a resetting, and a rejuvenation,” he says.
Vegetable and fruit gardens can provide a particular kind of positive reinforcement: a sense of self-reliance and community. While it may seem like a struggle to get broad beans to do what they’re meant to do (why won’t they grow onto their little sticks?!) or to stop your mint plant from dripping everywhere on your kitchen counter, growing foods can be helpful for your brain, Dr. Nawalanic says.
“It provides a great lesson — potentially supplying actual healthy food that you don’t have to rely on the grocer to provide,” he says. “That’s why gardening last saw a major boom in the World War era, when Victory Gardens were abundant.” There is something everlastingly cool about eating something you’ve grown yourself, and feeding it to others you love — a social act that can really boost mental health.
If you’re more devoted to non-edible plants, that can be social too. Gardening may look solitary, but there’s a giant community of other gardeners who will support you, advise you on how to make your sunflowers survive — or just accept a freshly-picked flower with delight. (Also, if you grow catnip, your cat will love you forever.)
“Self-care is more important than ever right now,” McBain says. “Getting creative and adding in new activities might be just want you need to bring positivity and hopefulness back into your everyday life.” Get stuck in, and who knows — you might end up with a kitchen garden that’s the envy of the apartment block.
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Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Heidi McBain, therapist
Dr. Gregory Nawalanic Pys.D., assistant clinical professor, University of Kansas