Nature's Healing: Gardening for the Mind

Nature’s Healing: Gardening for the Mind

On a weekend away in Daylesford, I wander along a country path after a trip to the farmer’s market. The layers of hills in the distance are soft and picturesque. But as I pass the front gardens of each property, it’s the flowers that seize my attention.

Pink and red roses spilling over fences. Bushes of orange hakea standing firm and dense. Red flowering eucalyptus blowing in the breeze, branches dangling elegantly. I notice a garden with a collection of lilac and violet flowers: groups of French lavender, large cones of pride of Madeira, chunky artichoke flowers and delicate verbena flowers.

A head pops up from behind a neatly maintained bush. The man makes an animated, puffed face and then breaks into a grin. “When they grow too well you gotta keep cutting them back!” he yells, “you’re doing too good of a job!” I smile back. He looks very calm, open, and happy. Though he jokes of the ongoing, effortful maintenance of gardening, I can also see his sense of satisfaction and peace as he settles down to attend to another garden bed.

It seems to be broadly accepted that gardening is good for us. Whether it be for the sense of pleasure, refuge or perhaps the physical exercise involved. Many people report they found gardening therapeutic while in the midst of the frustration and monotony of the long Melbourne lockdowns. So, what is it about gardening specifically that supports us psychologically?

Acceptance

When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.”

– Ram Dass, psychologist and yoga guru

Imperfection is everywhere when we step into nature and we accept it, without calling it right or wrong. Dass makes a wonderful point, that if we applied the same acceptance toward ourselves or those around us, it would likely save us a lot of heartache.

The unrelenting anxiety of perfectionism, worthless low moods when we believe we’re not ‘enough’, the deep disappointment or niggling frustration we feel in relationships. Each of these struggles could be in some way linked to a struggle to accept of what is. Perhaps gardening offers a subtle reminder that we are part of nature, rather than separate from it, and therefore worthy of the same appreciation and compassion.

Patience and Flow

Gardening isn’t always an easy process. Anyone who has tried to grow vegetables will tell you they have experienced some degree of failure. Whether it be a tomato plant which burnt to a crisp in excessive sun or a chaotic bundle of carrots planted too closely together, there will be mistakes in gardening. But the process of learning from mistakes, gathering information and slipping into a flow state while setting things up again can be truly nourishing.

In fact, in order to access a ‘flow’ creative state there needs to be a level of difficulty but also the possibility of our skills meeting the challenge. Gardening seems to facilitate this level of creative attention beautifully with a mix of simple tasks and more time consuming and thoughtful. Any task that holds our attention and focus, but also removes a sense of time or self-consciousness is wonderful for our mental health, and gardening generously offers both.

Presence

The fresh smell of newly cut grass or sweetness of blooming jasmine 
The warm sleepy sensation of sunlight or cool whip of wind at the break of a storm
The zing of just-ripened strawberries or subtle burst of flavour from crunchy lettuce
The laughable vibrance of a bright yellow sunflower or delicate wriggle of a worm in fertile soil
The tranquil shimmer of breeze through leaves or loud patter of raindrops on tin sheeting

The sensory experience of gardening is enough to turn any of us into a curious child. There is an abundance of stimuli to help us remain present and practice mindful awareness in the garden. Mindfulness has been proven to offer huge benefits to mental health, as it reduces rumination and stress and boosts memory, focus, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility and relationship satisfaction. Although gardening does not necessarily equal presence, the environment and activity does seem to be fertile ground for it.

Connection

The connection we have to nature is said to improve our mental and physical health. This connection can actually be as simple as living in a leafy neighbourhood. A 2019 longitudinal study by the University of Wollongong Australia found that people who lived in spaces with a tree canopy of 30% or more were 31% less likely to develop psychological distress.

This finding aligns with the philosophy behind the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, in which shinrin translates to ‘forest’ and yoku ‘bath’ – or, as it’s known in English, ‘nature bathing’. Shinrin-yoku encourages people to immerse themselves in nature to maintain health and wellbeing. Gardening has the potential to offer a sense of immersion or connection with nature, as well as the satisfaction of actively adding to the growth and development of green space. It may seem obvious that green spaces are good for us but its helpful to recognise that it’s also backed up by scientific research.

Release

Exercise is a well-known form of healthy stress relief. It’s helpful for regulating emotion, reducing symptoms of depression and improving cognitive function. From mowing a lawn or pruning a bush, work around the garden is likely to require a level of physical exertion. So if completing a few tasks in the backyard is going to get you moving as a bonus, you might as well reap the benefits of it.

Public health campaigns recommend incidental activity (any activity built up in small amounts over the day) as an entry into increasing exercise. If you’re someone who struggles to find the time to exercise but appreciates its importance, it may be something to inadvertently adopt while gardening.

Respect

The Wurundjeri-willam people of Kulin Nation are the traditional owners of the land that is now known as The City of Yarra. Their connection to the land extends back tens of thousands of years and is underpinned by cultural and spiritual values grounded in respect. Rather than subscribing to European ideas of ‘owning’ land, the Wurundjeri belonged to, or were ‘owned by’ the land (read more about the Aboriginal history of the Yarra here). As custodians of the land, the Wurundjeri approached the land, rivers and skies with respect and commitment to sustainability.

With awareness of this relationship, the Yarra River Keeper Association is committed to regenerating the ecological integrity and ecological functioning of the Yarra River or ‘Birrarung’ by restoring soils, native vegetation and fauna. Community members show respect for the land by offering gardening support as a volunteer around the river. You can learn more about volunteer work regenerating the Yarra River here.

Community

Like tree roots connected underground in a forest, the connections with have with people in our community add to our sense of collective resilience. We need each other to survive and many people report that the thing they value most in life is their relationships with others. Gardening has the potential to be a very social and connecting activity.

You might garden as a part of a regeneration group or within a community garden. Perhaps you exchange fresh produce and ideas with friends or simply share a greeting with a passersby of your front garden. No matter the kind of connection, it’s helpful for our wellbeing to have a sense of social netting that can catch us when we fall.

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There are many reasons to dig your hands into the soil and help shape a garden. Like any process that moves us into our bodies, it fertilises and grows our sense of grounding, connection, creativity and lightness. And where each of these conditions meet, an inner resilience blooms.

 

Want to get into gardening but wan’t ready to commit to a full garden, or maybe don’t have the space? Read here and here for some tips on how to get started with urban gardening and growing plants in pots.