Gardening for physical and mental health

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By Geneva Pattison

As the days grow cold and dark, it’s more important than ever to allot specific time to taking care of your mental health. Just as the medical practitioners of the past prescribed “sea air” to assist recovery from certain diseases and ailments, many doctors nowadays are giving patients “green prescriptions” to aid in their recuperation.

A green prescription is written advice from a GP to engage in more outdoor activities in nature, that are suited to the patient’s own unique physical ability. They may refer you to physiotherapy or put you in touch with local outdoor groups and will check on your progress throughout your recovery. 

A public figure championing this form of healing is Gardener and TV Personality Monty Don. This year he released this powerful quote on the subject, “gardening can do what medicine only tries to mimic for mental health.”

Monty, having been diagnosed with depression many years ago, has had first-hand experience of feeling the positive effects that gardening has had on his mental health. 

Therapeutic horticulture

The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture explores this topic further, in an academic article which was published in 2011. The article deals specifically with the case of how gardening alleviates symptoms of depression in individuals with disabilities.

It also states that therapeutic horticultural activities have been proven to significantly reduce the severity of symptoms in adults diagnosed with major depression.

Getting out into nature and surrounding yourself with greenery is a wonderful thing. It’s effective in clearing your head and taking your mind off lingering problems.

However, there is one distinction that was clearly noted in the study. It’s the physical action of gardening itself that induces more tangibly positive results.

The study goes on to discuss the efficaciousness of prescribed antidepressants and the various forms of talking therapies. It is agreed that prescribed medication is absolutely essential to many patients’ journey to recovery, but only around one third of those treated with medical therapies reach an optimal stage of remission.

When this understanding of treating depression is applied to a person who also has a lifelong chronic illness or disability, it’s found that they’re at a profoundly higher risk of poor recovery. It’s been proven that symptoms related to a disability or illness can be drastically reduced once a person’s mood improves. 

The Central Statistics Office released figures from 2016 in relation to health, disability and carers, stating that 13.5% of the total population of Ireland have a disability. That’s a total of 643,131 people in Ireland, a vast increase of 47,796 people in comparison with the 595,335 recorded disabilities in 2011.

The reality is, 13.5% is a substantial section of the population and considering many people with chronic illnesses or painful disabilities are sometimes partly treated with benzodiazepines or opiate painkillers, horticultural therapy seems like the least invasive path towards recovery.

In Ireland, efforts have been made to provide more inclusive community gardening projects with hands-on assistance for those with poor mobility. Outdoor gyms in parks or green spaces have been installed in recent years and it’s all progressive movement towards enabling outdoor therapy. 

Activities for the winter garden

Being outside for long periods of time in the colder months is not the most inviting of ideas. Our gardens are unfortunately also in a state of dormancy but, this doesn’t mean we can’t still get a few things done in them. If the soil is dry, early December is still time enough for you to divide your perennials to increase your plant yield for next year.

Whether you’re planting them in the ground or in a pot, make sure your perennials don’t dry out, if the rain is sparse give them a little bit of water. If you have any Autumn flowering plants, now is a good time to deadhead them.

Small tasks like tidying up your garden can clear your mind, even a few minutes pruning can be a meditative act. Winter presents a great time for future planning and reflection on your garden, think about what you want to achieve or grow next year. Organising your seeds and planning where best would suit them is another way to engage with your garden as the chill sets in.

Of course, if you don’t have a garden, fear not. Just try to get out to your closest park for a 20-minute or even a 10-minute walk. We’re not trying to move mountains, we’re just trying to keep ourselves happy and healthy this Christmas season. 

Disability statistics available from the CSO site:

“The Relationship between Gardening and Depression among Individuals with Disabilities” by Justin F. Wilson and Keith M Christensen is available through the academic journal database Jstor.