Written by Kara M.
Fall is an exciting season. The kids are back to school, pumpkin spice and apple cider rule supreme, and Halloween and Thanksgiving are around the corner. However, it can also be a stressful time of year. Between the planning and the running around, sometimes it seems like there’s never a second to recharge, and sometimes, our mental health can begin to suffer.
Luckily, if you garden, you have a powerful self-care tool right in your own yard. When combined with appropriate medical attention or treatment when necessary, gardening has been shown to improve mental health in a variety of ways. Here are just a few benefits that gardening is thought to provide.
Being present in the moment
Life can get so chaotic sometimes that we get overwhelmed by what has happened in the past, or worried about what might happen in the future. This not only activates our stress response, but it also takes away our ability to be able to enjoy the present moment.
Gardening forces you to focus on the immediate task at hand, whether it’s planting seeds, watering plants, or harvesting crops. Focusing on something small and manageable, like putting the next seed into the ground, gives us the opportunity to stop worrying about what was or what might be. The routine actions associated with planting, weeding, or watering a garden give the brain time to slow down and focus on something outside of ourselves.
Replacing perfectionism with acceptance
So many of us demand perfection from ourselves in everything we do. However, we’re human, which means this is an unrealistic and unattainable standard. Gardening is the perfect way to start letting go of some of those expectations, because there are so many things in gardening that are completely out of our control.
Even if we follow every direction, give our plants everything they need, and take meticulous care of them, we can’t control the weather, or protect them from accidental damage, or keep them from being eaten by animals who are passing through.
If there are children in your household, you can take this a step further. Allowing kids to harvest crops from the garden is a great exercise in giving up control and letting go of perfectionism. The kids may not know how to properly harvest without damaging parts of the garden. This is okay! Letting go and allowing them to learn not only helps you let go of perfectionism, but it also gives them a sense of independence and ownership.
Improving attention spans
The process of planting and caring for plants isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. For those of us who often start a project and then abandon it for something else in a never-ending pattern, gardening is a way to challenge ourselves to stay focused on the task at hand, not only for a day of planting, but also for a season (or many seasons) of weeding, watering, and attending to plants.
Unlike a great idea that is never quite brought to fruition, or a halfway-finished project that is just collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, plants give you real-time feedback when you don’t follow through. If you plant beautiful roses, for example, but don’t water them, they will wilt and eventually die. They don’t care why you didn’t care for them; they just won’t survive without your attention.
Some studies have suggested that gardening and working outdoors can reduce some symptoms of ADHD, though more research is needed on this topic.
Building confidence and pride
Watching something that you’ve planted with your own two hands grow into a harvestable – or, better yet, edible – plant is undeniably satisfying. For those who tend to be hard on themselves, or who are lacking confidence, being able to watch the fruits of your labor literally grow before your eyes can be a great way to become confident, and even proud of themselves and their work.
To really reap the benefits of this, consider planting popular fruits and vegetables, like pomegranate, asparagus, or tomatoes. Once they’ve been harvested, consider cooking a meal using your homegrown ingredients to share with family, friends, or neighbors. Not only does this provide an opportunity to celebrate the foods and the hard work that went into growing them, but it also offers a way to connect with others.
Finding common connections
While gardening can, at first glance, seem like a solitary activity, it actually provides many opportunities to connect with others. For those that plant in a community garden, there’s a sense of camaraderie between gardeners, as everyone is working towards the same goal – robust and healthy plants.
For those looking to further bond with their family or housemates, gardening is a great way to spend time together, without being distracted by electronics or other interruptions while working together in nature.
And for those looking to perhaps make new friends or community connections? Gardening is a great conversation starter. Many, if not most, gardeners, are passionate about and find joy in their gardening. This means it’s a topic that people are excited to talk about. If you’d like some new friends who share your interest in gardening, check to see if your town has a gardening club, look for online groups for gardeners or plant enthusiasts, or find out if any local nurseries or farms have any in-person events or meetups where you might be able to bond with some new friends over your shared passion.
Reconnecting with nature
Despite all of our modern creature comforts and distractions, there’s still something to be said about making time to reconnect with nature. One of the easiest ways to do this is by spending time outdoors, working in the dirt. There’s something about literally, physically connecting to our earth that seems to ground us, and bring us back to reality, especially when we’re spiraling from stress or anxiety.
Allowing yourself to feel the soil in your hands, smell the plants around you, and feel the sun and the breeze has a way of soothing anxieties, calming thoughts, and encouraging us to widen our world view beyond ourselves and our struggles.
Some research even suggests that being in, or even looking at, a natural green landscape may be associated with a reduction in depression and anxiety, and in increase in the ability to manage stress.
While beautiful, autumn, with its early sunsets, cooler weather, and hectic schedules can be challenging to our mental health. It can be difficult to find time to allow ourselves to relax, regroup, and refocus our thoughts. Gardening is an inexpensive and convenient way to build in time to sit in nature, focus on the task at hand, and be present in the moment.
While gardening isn’t – and should never be viewed as – an alternative to seeking appropriate medical and mental health treatment, it can be a powerful supplementary practice that provides us with an ever-growing list of mental health benefits. Even just a few minutes a day spent in nature can make a noticeable difference in our thought processes and outlook. Try working a small amount of outdoor time into your daily schedule and let us know if you notice a difference in your mood.
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