Green Therapy: How Gardening Can Benefit Your Mental Health During COVID-19 Lockdowns
Updated: May 16
In recent weeks, health experts in Australia have warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could have a devastating effect on mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression are rising, and many everyday activities that bring us joy and purpose, such as socialising with friends, exercising, and attending religious services, are difficult or even impossible due to strict lockdown rules.
However, a new study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning has found that there is one surprisingly mood-boosting activity we can do even if we're locked up alone at home: tending a small garden. The study shows that gardening can boost people's moods by as much as some common types of exercise, like cycling and walking. This boost is available whether it is done alone or with others, on a balcony in the city or in a suburban backyard, and it seems to be particularly strong for women and low-income people. Moreover, while all types of gardening were shown to be beneficial to mental health, people who grow their own food seem to take particular joy in tending to their plants.
For the study, 370 adults were given a mobile app that recorded their activity during a random one-week period in 2016 and 2017. The app asked every study participant to log the intensity, on a scale of 1 to 7, of emotions experienced during activities in which they participated. The participants tracked two positive emotions (happiness and meaningfulness) and four negative ones (pain, sadness, fatigue, and stress).
About 30 percent of the participants said they gardened, spending an average of 1.5 hours a week at it. The researchers conducted a measure of net well-being by subtracting the average recorded intensity of negative emotion experienced during an activity from the average intensity of positive emotions. Then they compared this net well-being measure across various activities.
Gardening was near the top of the activity list in terms of net well-being, statistically indistinguishable from walking, biking, or eating a meal at a restaurant. The only activity scoring significantly higher than gardening, in fact, was "other leisure" - a catchall category that could include anything from watching a movie to socialising with friends.
The study found that while all types of gardening are good for your mental health, people who grow their own vegetables seem to be especially pleased with their efforts relative to those who grow only flowers or decorative plants. However, a word of caution: vegetable gardeners also tended to rate all their activities as more enjoyable than others did, suggesting they may be "a subpopulation experiencing higher net affect over a range of activities," as the paper puts it.
Exercise is one of the most widely prescribed activities for boosting mental health, and at first blush, it may seem unusual that a much less intensive activity like gardening could confer similar benefits. But gardening is a unique composite of various activities that other research has shown to be beneficial. Being outside, for instance, is associated with happiness. Ditto for even small amounts of physical activity. Eating well is associated with better mental health, as is simply having plants around. Gardening is an amalgamation of all those things.
While there's a tendency to associate gardening with big suburban yards, this study deliberately included a large sample of people who garden in urban areas, in places like balconies, window ledges, and roofs. The authors say policymakers should think about gardening in the context of discussions on how to make cities more livable.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to mental health, and it is crucial for mental health professionals to explore a variety of effective strategies for psychosocial recovery. Gardening, as shown by the study published in Landscape and Urban Planning, is a surprisingly mood-boosting activity that is available even for those who are locked up alone at home. It boosts people’s moods by as much as some common types of exercise and is particularly strong for women and low-income people. The study suggests that policymakers should consider gardening as a means to improve the livability of cities, and mental health professionals should recommend it as a valuable activity for psychosocial recovery. So if you are feeling stuck in a mental rut during lockdown, why not give gardening a try? Grab a pot, some soil, and some seeds, and see how it makes you feel.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental ill health know that help is available. ACTS3 is a psychosocial rehabilitation organisation that provides a range of services to help individuals overcome mental health challenges and improve their overall well-being. Our team of trained professionals offers evidence-based treatments as well as social support and community-based programs. To learn more about our services and how we can email us at email@example.com or call 1300 290 379.