The science is in: gardening is good for you

Chris Williams, University of Melbourne

As the weather warms and days lengthen, your attention may be turning to that forgotten patch of your backyard. This week we’ve asked our experts to share the science behind gardening. So grab a trowel and your green thumbs, and dig in.

“That’s all very well put,” says Candide, in the final line of Voltaire’s novel of the same name, “but we must go and work our garden.”

I studied this text at high school before I became a gardener and professional horticulturist. We were taught that Candide’s gardening imperative was metaphorical not literal; a command for finding an authentic vocation, not a call to take up trowels and secateurs.

In fact, Voltaire himself really believed that active gardening was a great way to stay sane, healthy and free from stress. That was 300 years ago.

As it turns out, the science suggests he was right.

The science of therapeutic horticulture

Gardens and landscapes have long been designed as sanctuaries and retreats from the stresses of life – from great urban green spaces such as Central Park in New York to the humblest suburban backyard. But beyond the passive enjoyment of a garden or of being in nature more generally, researchers have also studied the role of actively caring for plants as a therapeutic and educational tool.

“Therapeutic horticulture” and “horticultural therapy” have become recognised treatments for stress and depression, which have served as a healing aid in settings ranging from prisons and mental health treatment facilities to schools and hospitals.

Gardening and school

Studies of school gardening programs – which usually centre on growing food – show that students who have worked on designing, creating and maintaining gardens develop more positive attitudes about health, nutrition and the consumption of vegetables.

They also score better on science achievement, have better attitudes about school, and improve their interpersonal skills and classroom behaviour.

Research on students confirms that gardening leads to higher levels of self-esteem and responsibility. Research suggests that incorporating gardening into a school setting can boost group cohesiveness.

Gardening and mental health

Tailored gardening programs have been shown to increase quality of life for people with chronic mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

Another study on the use of therapeutic horticulture for patients with clinical depression sought to understand why gardening programs were effective in lessening patient experience of depression. They found that structured gardening activities gave patients existential purpose. Put simply, it gave their lives meaning.

In jails and corrective programs, horticultural therapy programs have been used to give inmates positive, purposeful activities that lessen aggression and hostility during and after incarceration.

In one detailed study from a San Francisco program, involvement in therapeutic horticulture was particularly effective in improving psychosocial functioning across prison populations (although the benefits were not necessarily sustained after release.)

Gardening has been shown to help improve the lives of military veterans and homeless people. Various therapeutic horticulture programs have been used to help people with learning difficulties, asylum seekers, refugees and victims of torture.

Gardening and older people

As populations in the West age, hands-on gardening programs have been used for older people in nursing homes and related facilities.

A systematic review of 22 studies of gardening programs for older adults found that gardening was a powerful health-promoting activity across diverse populations.

One study sought to understand if patients recovering from heart attack might benefit from a horticultural therapy program. It concluded:

[Our] findings indicate that horticultural therapy improves mood state, suggesting that it may be a useful tool in reducing stress. Therefore, to the extent that stress contributes to coronary heart disease, these findings support the role of horticultural therapy as an effective component of cardiac rehabilitation.

Horticulturist and nurse Steven Wells talks about his work at Austin Health.

While the literature on the positive effects of gardening, reflecting both qualitative and quantitative studies, is large, most of these studies are from overseas.

Investment in horticultural therapy programs in Australia is piecemeal. That said, there are some standout success stories such as the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and the work of nurse Steven Wells at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre and beyond.

Finally, without professionally trained horticulturists none of these programs – in Australia or internationally – can take place.

The Conversation

Chris Williams, Lecturer in urban horticulture, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 11 – Watarrka National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was a fairly easy day for my last day at Watarrka National Park. All I had left to do was walk the very short Kathleen Springs Walk, which only took about 1 hour to complete. It was a reasonably short drive to this section of Watarrka National Park and the walk itself was also very easy. Still, it was an early start considering just how little I had to do.

Having returned to camp following the walk, I once again had a very early main meal for the day while the campsite was quiet and found that again there was no water for a lengthy period, and once again no communication from site management that the water was being turned off. Eventually I was able to clean up my gear and settle down for a lazy afternoon reading and chatting. I also made sure I had ready everything I…

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A Wonderful Time We Live In

At the BookShelf

What a wonderful time we live in. Sure, there are always things to lament and probably in this day and age there may be more than in any time in the past. Yet there is still much to be excited about and to be thankful for. It may seem incongruous to both lament the current times, while still being excited and thankful for them. That this is a paradox is a given, but I can live inside it without feeling any contradiction. Now this may all seem a little heavy for late on a Saturday night (in Australia it is approaching 11.00 pm at this moment and is sure to be later when I actually upload this post), however I am not really looking for a philosophical debate – far from it. In fact, my purpose is to talk books.

OK, so that seems a rather strange jumping off point…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 10 – Watarrka National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was a fairly straight-forward type of day today. It was an early, short drive to Watarrka National Park from Kings Canyon Resort, where I did the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. The Kings Canyon Rim Walk is a spectacular exploration of the the area above the gorge and also descendsinto the gorge to an area known as ‘The Garden of Eden.’ It is a 6km return walk, with some moderate to difficult sections, especially at the beginning with the climb to the gorge rim. Surprisingly the walk was completed in about 3 hours, even allowing for a bit of sightseeing along the way.

Having completed the walk and once again not being able to use the free wifi point at Watarrka National Park I travelled back to Kings Canyon Resort for a very early main meal (while the resort was fairly quiet) and to spend a relaxing afternoon chatting with…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 9 – Yulara to Watarrka National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was an early start as I headed of for Watarrka National Park, for a morning that was going to be spent driving and then hopefullly setting up my campsite, before heading off for a quick walk at Watarrka National Park. My first stop was at Curtain Springs for a quick top up of the fuel, knowing that fuel was going to be expensive at Kings Canyon Resort. So after that stop it was basically nothing but driving straight to Watarrka National Park and the Kings Canyon Resort.

When I arrived there were no powered campsites available as the place was pretty busy and booked out. It turned out that the Variety Bash was in the area and staying at the resort that night. It was a very crowded scene and somewhat chaotic. I managed to grab a campsite without power, set up and decided to escape to the national…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 8 – Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was a much later start today, with just some short walks to knock over before a fairly relaxing afternoon. Before I started the walks I stopped at the Uluru Sunset Viewing Area to collect a couple of shots of Uluru.

The first of the two walks for this morning was the Liru Walk. The Liru Walk connects Uluru with the Cultural Centre and can be walked from either location. I started at Uluru because it would also be the starting point for the Mala Walk, the second walk I would be doing this morning. The Liru Walk is a 4 km return walk which is flat and easy, making its way through the low woodland and wildflower covered region between the Rock and the Cultural Centre. It was a visual feast of wildflowers during my visit.

With the Liru Walk completed, I headed off to repeat the Mala Walk…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 7 – Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was an early morning yet again as I prepared for a sunrise viewing of Uluru. This morning I was heading off to Talinguru Nyakunytjaku to catch the Uluru sunrise at either the Minymaku platformor the Watiku platform. When I arrived I was a little surprised by the number of people that turned up (not that I should have been really) and both platforms were soon packed like sardine cans. However, I soon found what I thought was a much better spot anyway, on the edge of one of the trails below the Watiku platform. Then I discovered that I had forgotten to put the battery for my camera in the camera after I had recharged my camera overnight. Thankfully the batteries were in my car so I was able to quickly correct the problem and return prior to sunrise. It wasn’t long though before other people decided I knew…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 6 – Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was once again an early start, but this time it wasn’t because I had a lot of driving to do. In fact, it was a short drive from Yulara to Uluru this morning. So I was up at 6am and off quite ealy to get the day’s main activity under way – The Uluru Base Walk.

Once I arrived at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it was a case of paying my $25.00 for a park pass, which gave me three days of consecutive entrance to the park. There is a ticket station there and when you have a pass, you can enter fairly quickly via the boom gate entrance while the ticket remains valid.

The Uluru Base Walk is a 10.6 km circuit walk that is generally started at the Mala Walk Carpark (which is also the starting point for the Uluru climb and Mala Walk). The walk is…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 5 – Marla, South Australia to Yulara, Northern Territory

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

I was probably up a little later than I had expected to be, but was still away just as dawn broke. It had been a cold night, I was still ill with the flu, but at least I had been nice and warm in the sleeping bag and under the covers in my little tent. Having experienced a very cold night in central Australia many years ago, I have never gone camping again without all that I need to keep comfortable and warm. I now go prepared for all possibilities as far as cold nights are concerned, as the previous cold night in central Australia (18 years ago) was terrible and was in fact less than 100km from Uluru in June 1998. So now I have a sleeping bag I can be comfortable in (one I can fit comfortably in too – no pathetically small single-sized sleeping bag), the doona…

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Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 4 – Woomera, South Australia to Marla, South Australia

Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

It was a much later start in the day for me today, departing Woomera at about 7.15am. Being as ill as I was with the flu, I felt I could use the sleep-in. Once I was on my way, it was just off to Pimba for a quick fuel pit stop – Pimba is only a very short distance up the road and took only a matter of minutes to get there. This also marked the beginning of the more expensive fuel prices, with ULP coming in at $1.60 a litre at Pimba. It would be $2.02 at Kings Canyon Resort.

Once on the road proper, I again searched for a number of geocaches along the way. These helped to highlight the land that I was travelling through and allowed for regular leg stretching, which always helps when on the road for long periods of time. Another thing that helped…

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