Gardening Therapy: The Science Behind Planting and Plotting

Gardening enthusiasts have long intuited that gardening is therapeutic. Now, there is scientific evidence to support what they have felt all along. It turns out that planting and tending a garden can tangibly increase an individual’s quality of life in many different facets.

Gardening Therapy

Scientific Studies

A literature review conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins concluded that gardening may reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even ease pain. However, at the time the study was conducted, it was not yet conclusive as to what specific aspect of gardening was responsible for those effects.

Researchers in the Netherlands expounded upon the Johns Hopkins study by discovering another therapeutic quality of gardening: stress relief. They found that gardening alleviates stress by reducing the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in a person’s brain. Gardening even performed better at reducing cortisol than other supposed relaxing activities such as light reading.

Scientists are unsure why this is the case, but agree there is something unique to gardening that endows it with these healing properties. Dr. Christopher Lowry of the University of Colorado has theorized that bacteria, of all things, are responsible. Apparently, a type of bacteria commonly found in soil can stimulate the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter (a brain chemical) with antidepressant qualities. Though not quite the same as taking antidepressants, the bacteria could act in a similar way to a lesser extent.

Who Benefits from Gardening Therapy?

Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that gardening has novel healing properties. These studies, and others like them, have spurred the growth of a therapeutic discipline coined horticulture therapy. Horticulture therapy is used in a variety of settings from daycares, to Sunshine retirement living communities. However, it has a well-established reputation for being particularly effective in elderly populations with various types of dementia. Why? Gardening is a simple, yet rewarding activity that allows an elder to be cognitively engaged in a non-threatening environment. Moreover, caring for plants in this location releases oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone that helps bond a mother and child). Finally, seeing the plants thrive as because of their work gives them a sense of control over their environment during a time when they may be losing personal autonomy due to physical or mental limitations.

As intriguing as the science is, real-life results are more important by far. Whether it is due to serotonin, or oxytocin, or the dampening of cortisol, what it all boils down to is that for many, gardening equals happiness. It is a wonderful way to interact with nature in your own home and relax while still staying actively engaged.

Erin Emanuel