GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you’ve been feeling down lately, or particularly stressed out, researchers from the University of Florida suggest getting more hands on with nature. Their study finds gardening helped lower stress, anxiety, and depression among a group of healthy women attending twice-weekly gardening classes.
Even better, you don’t have to be an experienced gardening pro to reap the mental benefits. Each participant never gardened before taking part in the study.
“Past studies have shown that gardening can help improve the mental health of people who have existing medical conditions or challenges. Our study shows that healthy people can also experience a boost in mental wellbeing through gardening,” says principal investigator Charles Guy, professor emeritus in the UF/IFAS environmental horticulture department, in a university release.
What is it about gardening that puts us at ease?
In all, 32 women between the ages of 26 and 49 participated in this project. Each woman had a history of taking prescription medication for either depression or anxiety. Researchers assigned half of the group to a twice-weekly gardening class, while the other half took an art class. Both classes met twice a week for a total of eight weeks.
“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,” Prof. Guy explains.
The gardening sessions taught students how to compare and sow seeds, transplant various plants, harvest, and taste edible plants. Meanwhile, the art classes covered techniques including drawing, collage, printmaking, and papermaking.
Every participant also filled out a series of surveys measuring mood, anxiety, stress levels, and depression. All in all, the women in both the gardening and art cohorts enjoyed similar improvements in mental health over time. However, the gardeners reported slightly less anxiety than the artists.
While this project was small in scope, study authors still believe they were able to demonstrate clear evidence of what doctors would call the “dosage effects of gardening,” referring to how long one must garden to see mental health improvements.
“Larger-scale studies may reveal more about how gardening is correlated with changes in mental health,” Prof. Guy adds. “We believe this research shows promise for mental wellbeing, 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.”
Is gardening an evolutionary antidepressant?
The idea that gardening promotes well-being certainly isn’t a new theory. Therapeutic horticulture has existed since the 19th century. As far as why greenery helps people feel good, study authors hypothesize the answer has a deep connection to human evolution. Humans have a natural attraction to plants because they’ve relied on them for food and shelter for thousands of years.
“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,’” Prof. Guy concludes.
The study is published in PLoS ONE.