“You're absolutely filthy!” This admonishment of misspent youthful summer afternoons should be considered a compliment for young and old alike in these stressful times, if the filth comes from the garden. The physical exercise of gardening, the structure it can bring to our lives, the gardening and landscaping impulse we share with our socially-distant neighbors, friends and relatives, even the acquisition of health-promoting soil bacteria under dirty fingernails – these can all be therapeutic. Gardening is “green therapy,” with or without a crisis at hand.
The answer, of course, is yes. Both established and recent research about the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of gardening abounds. California's own universities and colleges produce and verify much of this research, and the UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are among the many local groups committed to sharing it.
“The most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms.” So said Abraham Lincoln in 1859, and that enduring sentiment drove the “Victory Gardens” movement of World Wars I and II. Historian and former Ventura County UC Cooperative Extension Director Rose Hayden-Smith traced the positive impacts of these gardens on food security, patriotism, and common purpose for Americans facing hard times. Right now we are seeing a resurgence of the Victory Garden idea in gardens variously called “Recovery Gardens,” “Resilience Gardens,” and even “Quarantine Gardens.”
Locally, this community-level version of green therapy is being championed by, among others, the Butte County Food Network and their current “Garden Blitz on the Burn Scar.”
If growing your own food does not draw you to the garden, you may discover that a green version of physical and emotional therapy is appealing. Wield a shovel, wheel a full garden cart, or wrestle a five-gallon plant at a nursery and you'll know you are exercising! Research has shown that this particular form of exercise can help lower body mass, improve bone density, and decrease heart disease and other cardiovascular risk. Garden exercise can also offset some of the ravages of cancer and dementia, modulate blood sugar levels in diabetics, and decrease joint and knee pain. The UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources lists dozens of scientific studies documenting these benefits on its “Live Well in the Garden” site.
Being in the garden and experiencing nature is green emotional therapy too. According to Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emerita from UC Berkeley and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology, plant puttering reduces stress because it puts the mind in a meditative state. Cooper Marcus notes that "When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind.” She points out that you naturally stop thinking, obsessing, and worrying; your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, which has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress.
If you are stressed – and who isn't these days? Or, if you have crisis fatigue, it is worth remembering that quality of life is related to the relationships we have with plants. An entire profession, Horticultural Therapy, has adopted this outlook. Professor Lee Altier at CSU Chico, one its proponents and educators, introduced the first California-based Horticultural Therapy course at Chico State in 2016. The class regularly fills up and Altier's students have introduced green therapy to individuals at Chico's Jesus Center, Little Red Hen Nursery, and local senior living centers. In a 17-minute video featuring scenes from Butte County, Altier sums up many of the therapeutic benefits described above and urges us all to consider getting out into the garden. Your physical, emotional, and mental health is scientifically guaranteed to improve if you do!
Sources and links:
Rose Hayden-Smith, “Growing a Greener World” Episode 126 – Victory Gardens: Then and Now
“Garden Blitz on the Burn Scar” – Butte County Local Food Network
UC ANR, Live Well in the Garden
Rob Knight interview: Dirt is Good
Clare Cooper Marcus, quoted in“Gardening for Health,” published in 2000.
Seth J. Gillihan, 10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening, Psychology Today, June 2019
“Is Dirt the New Prozac?” Discover Magazine, June 13, 2007
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at email@example.com (preferred) or call (530) 538-7201.