Gardening’s physical, emotional benefits
“Biophilia” is a word first used by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in the 1960s, and later popularized by Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson, to describe the passionate love of life and all that is alive.
True gardeners typically love to spend time outdoors. But did you know your garden loves you back?
American garden writer Robert Dash explains that the positive power of gardening comes from “reciprocal behavior. We tend it in exchange for the gift of it.”
During the pandemic, love of nature and love from nature have become even more important to us.
One of the most obvious gifts of gardening is working outdoors in the sun. Sunlight lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin D levels, especially during summer.
The blue light in the sun’s rays sets our circadian rhythm and regulates the production of serotonin in our brains. Serotonin helps stabilize our moods and reduces aggression.
Plants make the air we breathe cleaner, too. Trees, shrubs and other plants trap carbon and emit oxygen. In fact, one maple tree can remove 48 pounds of particulates and 100 pounds of carbon from the air each year, in addition to toxic metals, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
Gardening can improve both dexterity and strength. Digging, raking and mowing are vigorous aerobic exercises similar to a gym workout.
Working in the soil releases a memorable aroma called geosmin, which produces a pleasant, soothing effect on people and other living creatures. Geosmin is produced through the activity of soil bacteria called antinomycetes.
About 10 years ago, neuroscientist Christopher Lowry discovered Mycobacterium vaccae, another soil bacterium that can boost serotonin levels and help regulate the immune system. Lowry’s experiments found that mice exposed to M. vaccae exhibited lower levels of inflammation and were more resilient to stress.
Meditation and kindness
Another reason tending your garden may reduce stress is that, while gardening, one’s mind often goes into a focused state similar to meditation, according to Clare Cooper Marcus, one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology.
“When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind.” With your senses awakened, you exist in the present moment.
Gardening can also increase feelings of kindness. Anthropologist Tim Ingold explains that “caring for an environment is like caring for people: It requires deep, personal and affectionate involvement — an involvement not just of mind or body, but of one’s entire undivided being.”
Additionally, a Korean test demonstrated that viewing natural scenery activated parts of the brain involved in generating empathy and increasing generosity.
Our innate need for beauty
American botanist Luther Burbank once noted, “Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.”
In 2005, Rutgers professor Jeannette Haviland-Jones found empirical evidence of this positive reaction to flowers. When gifted with a bouquet, everyone in the study smiled. As Sigmund Freud said, “The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar, mildly intoxicating quality of feeling” that can “compensate for a great deal.”
Can gardening cut your risk of dementia? Some studies suggest it can. In 2008, University of Michigan researchers found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after subjects spent an hour interacting with nature. (The weather did not affect the results.)
Additionally, an Australian study in 2006 found that gardening could lower the risk of dementia by 36%. For 16 years, researchers tracked more than 2,800 people over the age of 60, concluding that physical activity — daily gardening in particular — could reduce the incidence of dementia in future years.
Based on his own childhood illness during which he viewed a tree outside his window, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich did research in 1984 on the healing power of nature.
In his study, hospital patients with a view of the outdoors were found to have lower levels of stress and more positive moods. They also needed fewer doses of pain medicines and, more importantly, they were discharged one day sooner.
Viewing flowering plants and gardens has also been found to alter the brain’s electrical activity through higher levels of alpha waves — one of nature’s methods of recharging ourselves.
We all need recharging from time to time, particularly during a pandemic. Selin Kesebir, associate professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, explains that, although people might not continue outdoor hobbies such as gardening post-pandemic, “being outdoors is a very good way of coping with the current situation.”
This year, let nature nurture you.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.