A wonder drug? Gardening’s health benefits are being rediscovered

Melissa Erickson More Content Now

There’s value in gardening far beyond a summer crop of tomatoes. Gardening has long been understood as a way to relax and reconnect with nature, but more research is showing that horticulture therapy can be used to treat a variety of ailments and afflictions.

Good for the body and the soul, gardening “is not just a feel-good hobby. We all know being outside, even just sitting and observing a garden, has a calming effect, but research has shown that it has significant psychological, social, cognitive and, of course, physical benefits,” said Patty Cassidy, a registered horticultural therapist in Portland, Oregon.

A ‘wonder drug’

According to the Chicago Botanic Garden, horticultural therapy is the professionally directed use of plant, garden and nature activities to achieve measurable physical and mental health outcomes. Gardens built to achieve those outcomes are often called therapeutic or health-care gardens and are designed by horticulture/landscape professionals in conjunction with health-care professionals.

Horticulture therapy picks up where traditional medicine leaves off, said Jane Gates of Gates & Croft Horticultural Design. She calls it a wonder drug.

“What else cures so many aches and pains, makes you feel joyful, keeps you more resistant to injury or illness, tastes so good, is so convenient, works for everybody and costs so little – with no unpleasant side effects? I do believe gardening is the epitome of a wonder drug,” she said.

While the label “horticulture therapy” may be trending now, the boost from working in a garden has long been understood by health professionals.

“Horticulture as therapy is being rediscovered,” Gates said. “Growing things, living off the land, working outdoors and being in tune with nature has been part of the human equation from man’s earliest evolution. It is the serious disconnect we are having with the planet, our lifestyles, the interconnectedness with life (and non-life) as well as each other that is making the rediscovery something new — and vitally important.”

Unseen benefits

The health benefits of gardening may start at getting a bit of exercise, but there’s plenty of unseen advantages, too, such as lowering blood pressure and decreasing cortisol, which is released in response to stress, Cassidy said.

In addition to feeling more relaxed and less stressed, working in the garden can lead to “increasing strength and better circulation, faster healing, a more powerful immune system, stronger bones (fighting bone loss), better coordination and flexibility and better-functioning organs – all of which help avoid injuries and illness while speeding up recovery when damage does happen. How many drugs offer all this?” said Gates, the author of “All the Garden’s a Stage” and eHow.com’s landscaping expert.

“With today’s technology we are able to measure and quantify many benefits that our ancient ancestors simply took for granted,” Gates said. “We now know the best source of vitamin D is the sun – and the deficiency of that vitamin is becoming a common source of ‘foggy mind,’ muscle aches, numbness and a whole assortment of other pains and dysfunctions. Instead of buying supplements, working outdoors lets your body manufacture its own vitamin D naturally.”

There’s peace among the plants, too.

“Nature is so awesome it puts my petty personal concerns into perspective,” Gates said. “Doing repetitive clipping and weeding helps the brain with cortisol reduction and encourages the production of soothing brain theta waves. The mind focuses on the present rather than stressing on the past or future. And if that’s not enough, you’ll likely be inhaling a type of soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae, which works on the brain just like an antidepressant drug – only for free!”