Gardening for therapy

Jun 2, 2023

Until a few years ago I considered myself an avid gardener. When it came to gardening, I felt that anything worth doing was worth doing to excess. Most people would have been satisfied with just a few raised beds for vegetable gardening, but I had thirty. I had to have an herb garden, a garden for growing cut flowers, a shade garden, a perennial flower garden and a multitude of containers filled with plants.

And then, from out of the blue, age caught up with me. Suddenly I was dealing with fatigue and joint pain and gardening was no longer physically possible. After multiple visits to multiple doctors, I learned I needed two new shoulders. Not great news but at least I now knew the source of my physical ailments.

I didn't realize it at the time, but my nearly two-year hiatus from gardening had an unexpected effect on my mental health. I lacked focus and was not sleeping well. My history of procrastination was at an all-time high, and not even the thought of a European vacation could excite me.

Thanks to what I refer to as “better living through chemistry” I started thinking about gardening again. I ordered seeds, set up grow lights and started working on a garden plan.

Next was pruning perennial plants and trees, adding compost to my raised beds and making a batch of organic fertilizer. I was feeling better physically and mentally thanks no doubt to medication, but I had also read an article in Texas A & M AgriLife on “The Positive Effects of Gardening on Mental Health,” and this piqued my curiosity. It was time for a deep Google dive to learn more about this subject.

The Texas A & M AgriLife article addresses the psychological benefits of gardening. These benefits include anxiety and stress reduction, attention-deficit recovery, decreased depression, enhanced memory retention, improved happiness and life satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem.

The writer noted that gardening enhances mindfulness—being alert to the present moment—which in turn supports mental health and overall well-being. Using your hands and being outside makes you less likely to be distracted by your cell phone or other technology.

Australian author Robyn Francis, in an article for Permaculture College Australia titled “Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression,” makes the case that all you must do is get your hands dirty and harvest your own food.

 “Contact with soil and a specific soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain,” writes Francis. “Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system. Lack of serotonin in the brain causes depression.”

A natural high occurs when we harvest produce from the garden, causing a release of dopamine in the brain.

Researchers surmise that this response evolved over millennia. When our ancestors were successful in their hunting and gathering, they experienced that dopamine release and a sense of euphoria. “The dopamine release can be triggered by sight and smell,” writes Francis, “as well as by the action of actually plucking the fruit.”

Several articles addressed the negative effect on mental health if a gardener is also a perfectionist. I know exactly what they were talking about. If you plant seeds and nothing germinates, then plant again, but don't give yourself 20 lashes and assume a fetal position with a bottle of cheap wine.

One year I went out to harvest chiles and found only scraps. A flock of birds had gorged themselves. Another time, when picking a beautiful tomato that had reached perfect ripeness, I saw that some vermin had eaten half of it. Gardening is you versus Mother Nature and sometimes she wins. You just have to let it go.

An article on WebMD titled “How Gardening Affects Mental Health” mentions the importance of exercise and social bonding. Weeding, digging and raking are good exercise. Regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression and can help prevent dementia.

If you don't like going to the gym, gardening can be an enjoyable way to still get the benefits and add a few steps to your fitness monitor. Gardening with others at a community garden or in another group setting relies on teamwork to achieve shared goals. Group activities can benefit your mental health by increasing your social connections and support system.

My online research has provided me with much good information regarding gardening and mental health. Now it's time for me to get away from my computer and go out in the garden.

Workshop: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a workshop on “Pollinators in Your Garden” on Saturday, May 27, from 10 a.m. to noon at Las Flores Learning Garden, Las Flores Community Center, 4300 Linda Vista Avenue, Napa.  Space is limited; register at

Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County and St. Helena Library for a talk on “Attracting Monarchs and Pollinators” on Tuesday, May 30, from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm at St. Helena Public Library, 1492 Library Lane, St. Helena. Learn how to create and maintain year-round habitat for pollinators in your garden. After the talk, enjoy an optional guided tour of the UC Master Gardeners' Pollinator Garden behind the library. The talk is free but please register at

Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners and Napa County Library for a talk on “Summer Fruit Tree Care” on Thursday, June 1, from 6 pm to 7 pm  at Napa Library, 580 Coombs Street, Napa.

Learn about summer pruning, watering, pest prevention and more from an experienced orchardist. The talk is free but please register at https://2023JunFruitTreesLibraryTalk.

Workshop: Join UC Master Gardeners for a Zoom presentation on “Summer Rose Care” on Saturday, June 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. Participants are invited to attend a hands-on workshop on Wednesday, June 14, from 10 a.m. to noon at Fuller Park in Napa. Learn pruning and irrigation techniques for all rose types and get advice on managing diseases and pests.

Space is limited. To get the Zoom link and attend the hands-on workshop, register here:

Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description of the problem.  For best results, attach a photo of the plant. You may also leave a voice mail message with the same information at 707-253-4143.