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Can gardening reduce your stress levels?

Having a green thumb can benefit your mental and physical health.

Health Agenda magazine
October 2018

Jo Morgan credits gardening with saving her life. The 59-year-old, from Ipswich in Queensland, experienced debilitating physical and psychological trauma during her time in Australia’s defence forces. As her health deteriorated, she was no longer able to work or manage the 80-acre property where she’d been living, and in 2000 she moved into a housing commission disability unit.

“I was totally lost and very depressed because I was sitting in this house by myself with nothing to do,” she says. “I don’t think I would be here today if I hadn’t found gardening. I was very close to not going on at one stage.”

After moving into the unit, Morgan, who’s been in a wheelchair for 20 years, immediately got stuck into establishing a garden. “I thought, oh well, it’s a brand-new place [with] no garden, so I started from scratch and went from there.”

Morgan has modified her gardening tools so she can use them from her wheelchair and she uses a handy gadget called a Power Planter to help with digging. She has a small trailer to carry what she needs. Her garden is blooming with a rose garden, cacti and succulents, fruit trees and raised beds for growing vegetables.

Gardening gains

An increasing body of research is reporting on what Morgan has experienced. A report called ‘Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis’ explored the results from 22 studies into the health effects of gardening. The researchers suggest that daily contact with nature has a deep and lasting impact on health, including on depression and anxiety, obesity, heart disease and longevity.

So what are some of the physical health benefits of getting out into the fresh air and sunshine to dig, plant, weed and water? Morgan, who has lost an arm as well as the use of her legs, says her upper body is a lot stronger since she started gardening. “The top part of my body is far more stable,” she says. “I can lift a lot more [and] I’m not falling to the right as much as I was.”

Gardening has also helped ease her arthritis symptoms. “You might start off with a little bit of pain, but it’s well worth putting up with that [than] ending up in no pain at all; and being able to do far more than you thought you ever would.”

Research backs this up, finding that healthy older adults who gardened to a moderate physical level, for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week, had better overall fitness, less pain, and better hand function than those who were also active but did less gardening.

Clearing the air                 

For Morgan, who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychological benefits are even more important. She says many of her fellow veterans don’t understand her positivity, given what’s she’s been through.

“I just tell them it’s because I keep busy,” she says. And being busy indoors doesn’t cut it for her. “You need to get out and get physical – the more physical you can become with this PTSD… the better off you are.”

Even a few hours in your garden can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. Two Norwegian studies published in 2011 looked at whether gardening activities affected depression, with measures taken before and after a 12-week gardening program, and at a 3-month follow-up. In both studies, the symptoms of depression decreased during the therapy and remained low at the follow-up. Participants described the gardening as meaningful and influential on their view of life.

Social butterflies

Don’t have a garden? By joining others in community or allotment gardens you’ll also benefit from the social connection, another factor in health and longevity. Visit communitygarden.org.au to find one near you.

How to grow your own green space

Gardener and author of Slow Down and Grow Something, Byron Smith also sees his garden as his refuge.

“In the garden, your mind can unwind, reflect and pause to appreciate the simple beauty of nature… [It’s] a quiet escape from the stress of the modern world.”

He points out that it’s not the size of your garden that counts, and that even city dwellers can get back in touch with nature with window boxes, herb gardens and small fruit trees.

His top tips for getting your garden started are to grow in the sunniest location you can and go with premium soil and potting mix.

If you have a small balcony space, go for a “selection of nice pots with hardy Mediterranean herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme. In another big pot have salad greens like bok choy, rainbow chard and kale. In the third big pot you could have a dwarf citrus tree”, planting edible flowers underneath it.

These plants don’t take up too much room and you can get the satisfaction of eating the herbs and salad greens on a regular basis.

If you have a garden, you could start with a “raised timber garden bed at about 40cm high” where you could experiment with other herbs and fruit trees.

For people with no outside space, if you have a sunny spot in your home certain plants will still thrive. “Edible plants don’t do so well indoors. A good indoor plant is the fruit salad plant, philodendron species.

[Indoor plants] clean the air and are good visually. Deep down I think that relaxes us and we know it’s a tranquil place to be.”

If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, visit beyondblue or call them on 1300 22 4636 for support. 

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