Researchers found that tending to plants can reap mental health benefits, even for first-time gardeners. The activity was linked to decreased stress, anxiety and depression in healthy women who attended twice-weekly gardening classes. No one in the small study had gardened before.
“Past studies have shown that gardening can help improve the mental health of people who have existing medical conditions or challenges,” said lead investigator Charles Guy, a professor emeritus in the University of Florida’s environmental horticulture department. “Our study shows that healthy people can also experience a boost in mental well-being through gardening.”
The study, conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers and published online recently in the journal PLOS ONE, included 32 women aged 26 to 49. All were healthy, which meant that they had no chronic health conditions, didn’t use drugs or tobacco, and were not prescribed medications for anxiety or depression. Half of the women attended gardening sessions, while the other half attended art classes.
“Both gardening and art activities involve learning, planning, creativity and physical movement, and they are both used therapeutically in medical settings. This makes them more comparable, scientifically speaking, than, for example, gardening and bowling or gardening and reading,” Guy explained in a university news release.
In the gardening sessions, study participants learned how to sow seeds, transplant different kinds of plants, and harvest and taste edible plants. The participants who went to art classes learned printmaking, paper making, drawing and collage.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to complete a series of tests that measured their anxiety, depression, stress and mood. The research team found that while the gardening and art groups experienced similar improvements in mental health over time, the gardeners reported slightly less anxiety than the artists.
“Larger-scale studies may reveal more about how gardening is correlated with changes in mental health,” Guy said. “We believe this research shows promise for mental well-being, plants in healthcare and in public health. It would be great to see other researchers use our work as a basis for those kinds of studies.”
Still, the idea of using gardening as a type of therapy is nothing new: It’s been around since at least the 19th century as something called therapeutic horticulture. The study authors determined there may be something ancient about people’s connection to plants — as a species, humans may be wired to be attracted to plants because they rely on them for food, shelter and other means of survival.
By the end of the study, many of the participants had found a newly discovered passion, the researchers noted.
“At the end of the experiment, many of the participants were saying not just how much they enjoyed the sessions, but also how they planned to keep gardening,” Guy said.