The healing power of horticulture: 10 ways gardening can positively influence mental health

A closer look at how gardening can benefit those suffering from mild to medium mental--health disorders - from depression and anxiety to learning- and attention-deficiency disorders.

Gardening provides a sense of control and responsibility, which is often lacking in people with low self-esteem. Satish Kumar / The National
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A patch of land can yield amazing results, for both the environment and the person tending it. An activity that nurtures our physical and mental well-­being, gardening is increasingly ­being used to help people who stand on the periphery of what is deemed "normal" - such as prisoners, hospital patients and those suffering from mild to ­medium mental-­health disorders - from depression and anxiety to learning- and attention-deficiency disorders.
"The benefits of gardening really are prodigious," says Adam Griffin, a senior occupational therapist at Camali Clinic, a UAE-based centre for child and adolescent mental health. "Not only can the exertions involved in digging, weeding, planting and pruning help your physical health, but they can also have a very positive impact on your mental health."
Here are some of the physical, psychological and social triggers of what has come to be known as ecotherapy or horticulture therapy, which can benefit stressed-out or learning-incapacitated individuals when they're encouraged to feel at one with nature.
1. A sense of responsibility
Youngsters with learning difficulties or people with high levels of anxiety suffer from low self-esteem, but gardening is a great levelling ground. For those with mental-health problems, being able to contribute to such a meaningful activity can be cathartic in boosting confidence and clarity. A simple activity such as being able to monitor the amount of water given to a potted plant or bed of flowers leads to a greater sense of control - an important psychological counter for those who are often overwhelmed by their ­feelings.
2. A connection with other living things
Biophilia, a term coined by the biologist Edward O Wilson, dictates that we're ­instinctively drawn to connect with other ­living, growing things. In 2003, occupational-therapist researcher Jon Fieldhouse, from the University of the West of England, Bristol, published a paper about the plant-person relationship that concluded that people have a "fascination" with plants. A meaningful connection results in improved moods and concentration, and as the relationship flourishes, it helps people to focus on their skills, rather than their deficits.
"Gardening shows us that we are but a small part of nature, and getting over such feelings of insularity and self-­absorption is an automatic antidepressant," says Malati Jagasia, a child psychologist based in Mumbai.
Griffin adds: "In a similar way to having a pet, gardening can help nurture one's mind, by providing a connection to another living thing."
3. Upping happy hormones
Exposure to green spaces has been proven to cause a dip in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which controls moods, memory and immunity. ­"Gardening can be a positive escape from the stress many of us take for granted as a part of modern living," says Griffin. "Even Sigmund Freud spoke of the relaxing benefits of gardening, saying: 'Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions or conflicts.' No matter your age, it can be a time when you leave your worries behind. All the bills, exams, deadlines and a thousand other daily responsibilities we have can be left at the proverbial garden gate."
As far back as 1983, health-care-design researcher Roger ­Ulrich proposed the stress-­reduction theory, which suggests that we're predisposed to find natural stimuli non-threatening, and that exposure to these stimuli has an immediate effect, triggering feelings of enhanced well-being and relaxation. Additionally, levels of serotonin and dopamine - the hormones that make us feel good - go up when we exercise, dissolving tension, anger or confusion. "It's simply a question of taking people's minds off their problems," says Jagasia.
4. Vent it out
Nature is not all clean, sweet and light - a big part of gardening involves force and aggression, and activities such as weeding, hacking and chopping can allow people to unleash their anger or frustration in a controlled ­environment. "You need to be destructive to be constructive in a garden," says Jagasia. "There's no guilt or confusion after you yank off a particularly stubborn weed; in fact, it's helpful."
5. Feelings of reward
"Gardening is an exciting and rewarding activity," says Reem Al Ghaith, the corporate social responsibility manager at the Dubai-­based Desert Group, which runs an outdoor training programme for people with special needs, and has only ever had positive feedback from the students (and their parents) ­involved in the course. The fact that the participants experience a surge of confidence in their own capabilities and strengths leads to a sense of ­accomplishment.
Anne Love, author of ­Gardening in Oman and the UAE, available at Dubai ­Garden Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road, says: "When you invest time and effort into growing plants, you feel a sense of ownership and pride, and this helps you feel you belong to a place."
Griffin adds: "Engagement in a meaningful activity is a pre­requisite for good mental health. Gardening is a perfect example. Whether this is a small window box, a patch of herbs or a large back garden, a little time spent getting your hands dirty can be a fruitful investment."
6. Physical benefits
"Gardening gives you a purpose, to be outside in the sun and wind and fresh air, moving about," says Love. So whether you're stretching to pick up a bag of fertiliser or bending to sow a few seeds, gardening is a great way of burning calories. It's also an activity that allows you to use your non-dominant hand, which is a good exercise to keep your brain engaged, plus it exposes you to immunity-building vitamin D and "friendly" allergy-fighting bacteria - Mycobacterium vaccae - commonly found in soil. According to a paper published in Biological Psychiatry, some experts say that fresh air can help prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and result in higher test scores among ­students.
7. No judgement
"The demands of modern society, and meeting the expectations of peers and superiors, can be a source of much distress, especially to those who are already struggling with wayward emotions," says Jagasia. Plants are much less frightening and challenging than people, and provide an escape route from our own thoughts, as well as other people's judgements. The connection and communication take place on a safer, simpler level, and this leads to a sense of stability and self-worth.
8. Group therapy
Programmes run by companies such as Desert Group promote communal gardening, which has a world of benefits. For one, it enables people to engage in a meaningful activity together, and become more alert, communicative and receptive, promoting a sense of belonging and social inclusion.
"The nature of tasks required when working among plants is very compatible with rehabilitation programmes for people with disabilities," says Al Ghaith. "Our programme includes leisure activities and social events, which add value and have a great impact on the performance of the team as a whole."
According to a paper published in 2014 by the American Horticultural Therapy Association, a by-product of long-term interaction with a like-minded group is linked to reduced reliance on medication and self-harming ­behaviour.
9. Attention restoration
Attention restoration theory, developed by the psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, suggests that people have two types of attention: directed attention and fascination. The former is limited and can be overloaded by stress, causing mental fatigue, while the latter is then used to restore mental order. Fascination is dominant in natural environments such as gardens, which have restorative qualities that affect our concentration levels, memory and problem-solving abilities.
"The higher your attention span, the more able you are to live in the present, which is a crucial requirement for overall emotional health," says Jagasia.
10. Cultivating hope
The researcher Mathew Page, who has conducted experiments on the therapeutic and social benefits of gardening, lists "hope" as one of its greatest advantages. He argues that people with mental-health disorders have very little to look forward to, and that the very action of planting a seed requires hope.
Love agrees: "Every day when you check on your plants, you will notice differences - a new bud forming, or your herbs need cutting - and that is a very pleasing, rewarding experience."
Training in the great outdoors with Desert Group
In 2006, the Dubai-based Desert Group partnered with the Ministry of Social Affairs on a work-inclusion programme to test whether people with intellectual disabilities can be trained to be productive in a task-led gardening environment. The course, since named Enable, is now in its 10th year, and is held at Wahat Al Sahraa Nurseries in Dubai.
Every year, a group of students with special needs - ranging from Down syndrome and dyslexia to hearing impairments and attention deficiency - are "employed" to help out at the nursery.
"The young employees start with basic tasks such as potting soil, weeding and cleaning, stacking and blocking plants, loading and unloading deliveries and sticking price tags," says Reem Al Ghaith, Desert Group's corporate social responsibility manager.
Under the guidance of trained therapists, and based on each student's grasp and growth, the group "graduates" to sales and communicating with walk-in clients. Performances are monitored and recorded daily, and employees move between physical and interactive tasks.
As part of a social-rehabilitation exercise, everyone gets a snack break together, and peer interaction is highly encouraged.
The Enable label also extends to a range of creative and eco-friendly home and garden products designed by the special-needs group. The products use organic soil, recycled materials and durable plants that require minimum care, which means that the programme taps into an individual's entrepreneurial skills.
All students get a certificate of participation, while a handful of standout employees either get absorbed into Desert Group, which also runs the Dubai Garden Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road, or are able to start their own retail units.
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