Planting a seed, nurturing it every day, watching it grow, using it to feed your belly and/or eyes with beauty, the process of gardening is innately beautiful. Many people I know have started growing their own plants for their physical health: they want a more wholesome diet with plants they know for a fact do not have a few layers of chemicals.
When I set out to grow my first vegetables, a few tomato plants and herbs, I was ready for the results from the get-go: I wanted to be biting that juicy tomato, holding handfuls of potent herbs, enough to give out to friends and family.
After understanding it was a much slower process than expected (I thought the months of fussing over my little ones would feel more like weeks), a realization occurred. I was not so focused on eating what I had grown, I was just happiest when I was working with the plants. The tomatoes didn’t even grow that first time, I think they were telling me to slow down, there is more to this than the physical reward at the end. And that was my take away from that first go: I felt happy just doing the work, there was something about growing plants that made my soul feel good.
As it turns out this is true on many levels, proven by science and the testimonies of people working with plants all around the world, the number of which is growing every day. While it is widespread knowledge that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, here I focus on some other benefits of growing your own plants, the ones that are not as well-known but starting to gain more attention.
The benefits of gardening on mental health are being studied more and more, from the use in treating alcohol addiction to the effects on the psychological well-being of the elderly. The overall takeaway from these studies is that the act of growing plants improves mental health. This is immensely important, as anxiety and depression are the epidemic of the time we are in. The speed at which society moves is dizzying, the constant hustle and bustle reinforcing the hamster-wheel mind which is the base of anxiety and depression.
Many people have moved towards meditation as an answer to the relentless speed of our minds and the outside world, and gardening is one type of mediation. By meditation I simply mean the act of focusing the attention on one thing, so that your mind has time to rest and recover. By truly being present with plants, focusing on what you are doing in that moment, the mind relaxes, it heals. In addition, by simply spending time with plants, watching them grow, change, bloom, we are reminded that we are a small part of the miraculous miracle of nature, and are able to get away from the feelings of isolation which are so common in those suffering from depression and anxiety.
The fact that the human mind seems to deeply benefit from being around plants could be explained by biophilia, a hypothesis written about by Edward Wilson in his book with exactly that as its title: Biophilia. The opposite of phobias, philias are the strong positive feelings people have toward things in their environment. As bio means life, Wilson suggests that humans have a strong attraction towards living systems, describing biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”. We haven’t always lived in cities, and it could be deep within our DNA that we long to be around plants and all things alive, that being around living things is ultimately necessary for our mental wellbeing.
Attention restoration theory (ART) was developed by psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan and is based on the theory that there are two types of attention: directed attention and fascination.
Fascination here is the good kind, the lasting, restorative type, while directed attention is limited and tends to exhaust the brain: the type that requires effort. Just imagine when you are trying to focus on work that you do not want to be doing. The attention fatigue that comes from directed attention leads to lower self control and poorer decision making which in turn is linked to health problems such as obesity (I know I can relate to finishing work and just wanting to watch TV and eat a whole pizza when I know I should go for a run to relax).
It has been found that time spent in nature, and gardens in particular, uses the good type of attention, therefore expanding our attention capacity and healing the mind. Because a larger attention span does seem to lead to a happier mind. As Malati Jagasia, a child psychologist based in Mumbai says:
“The higher your attention span, the more able you are to live in the present, which is a crucial requirement for overall emotional health.”
After thinking about this, I wondered about fascination attention and if doing something like watching TV or playing a game on a phone counted. I wondered, because that is what so many of us doing after finishing something that required directed attention. I found an article about a study that was done where 30 participants were asked to perform a stressful task. Half were then asked to go out and garden while the other half were asked to read. The gardeners, as it turned out, experienced a much larger decrease in stress than the readers, and a full switch from sour mood to positive mood. While this was not about watching TV, I can almost guarantee most people would feel better about themselves and life in general if more of their time was spent growing glorious plants instead sitting in front of a screen.
Writing about TV brings me nicely to the next topic: “lifestyle diseases,” and how gardening has been shown to prevent such diseases. The lifestyle diseases include heart-disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes, among others. These are diseases that have a correlation to the way that people live-the food they eat, the exercise they do or do not do, the amount of stress they carry around with them. And as it turns out, living in a city is associated with a higher risk of these diseases. Urban living frequently comes along with a diet higher in fat, a more sedentary lifestyle (although I must argue that I feel as though I walk a marathon a week since I’ve moved to the city), and more stress. All of this along with the exposure to a larger amount of environmental pollutants.
As more and more people are expected to live in cities as the human population increases, more heads and hearts are being turned to how to better the health of all those suffering from lifestyle diseases in cities. And creating more green spaces has become one of the biggest topics for change. It turns out that gardening even for a small amount of time every day correlates to a lower risk of all of these diseases: heart disease, obesity, you name it. While it is even better if the gardening is physically challenging, that was not what was looked at in these studies.
Simply working with plants seems to be enough to make a difference. It comes back to stress: growing plants is very soothing for us as humans. And as stress is linked to disease, the more stressed we are the more likely we are to get sick. So by taking time to be with something natural every day, as simple as that may sound, we are truly helping our bodies.
Success is Powerful
The success of growing a plant from seed and helping it to flourish may sound like a small feat, but for anyone who has tried, it is sometimes more difficult than it seems. Many good things take persistence, and when you finally do get it to take, the feelings of success can be extremely empowering. This has big implications for both our internal worlds and planet earth as a whole. One aspect of the hectic society we live in is that it is common to feel as if one has no power to change anything: there is too much going on, too many powerful people in control, and life feels as though it moves too fast to do what we really want to do. By helping this one little seed grow, by seeing it be successful with help from your own hands, in front of your own eyes, a small sense of power is brought back.
You see (and taste) that you created something beautiful and healthy, a tangible triumph. It still may seem small, but when that feeling of success has been absent in life, it is not small at all. Feelings of success lead to higher self-esteem and this self-esteem will translate to confidence in one’s ability to change other parts of life. By growing your own plants, the empowerment and positive feelings that start within will undoubtedly spread to your family and friends, creating a wonderful chain reaction.
Fight off colds and more…
Spend time growing sun-loving plants if you are able to, and you will get the benefit of extra vitamin D which many people are lacking. Vitamin D strengthens your immune system, leading to less sicknesses like the common cold, which I know so many of us dread as the winter approaches. Along with the cold-fighting powers of Vitamin D, it is also strongly linked to bone health because it helps in the absorption of calcium. This relationship with calcium has also been found to help prevent many types of cancer (17 to be exact). Hang out with your plants in the sun, imagine them making their food straight from the sunlight, and then imagine your immune system directly benefiting from that same sun.
These were a few examples of how growing your own plants is beneficial for your health, but there are many more. For example, our “happy hormones” such as dopamine have been shown to increase while gardening, while stress-causing ones like cortisol have been shown to drop. I encourage everyone to pay attention to emotions and stress levels while taking care of, or simply being around what you are growing. I think the more we pay attention to how we feel during and after spending a little time with our plants friends the more these reasons will become obvious and keep growing out and up. And remember, breathe deeply while doing so; your plants are creating fresh oxygen just for you!