Gardening can improve mental health

Gardening can improve mental health

It’s gardening season. Go ahead and dig into the soil. Use your bare hands, if you’re willing, and feel the soil between your fingers. Plant some seeds and watch in wonder at what they become — with care, of course — then enjoy their beauty or their taste.

Your body will get a workout, but your brain will too. Research shows that beyond the physical benefits, gardening also has a positive impact on mood and brain chemistry. It allows us to get out into the fresh air, breathe and take in nature’s beauty. Just spending time around plants can make us feel more peaceful and content.

Things like weeding, digging and raking are a good exercise, and regular exercise reduces anxiety, depression and other mental issues.

If you struggle with staying focused, gardening can help you learn to concentrate on what’s right in front of you without getting distracted. Focusing on the immediate tasks and details of gardening can reduce negative thoughts and feelings and can make you feel better in the moment.

Gardening stimulates the brain, which reduces the risk of cognitive decline.

We also can practice mindfulness in the garden by engaging our senses — feel the soil, touch the plants, smell the fresh air, listen to the birds and see all the colors of the garden.

I came across a gardening website where blog author Cassie Johnston offered these tips on how she uses her garden to practice mindfulness:

—“I schedule time.” If not, garden time gets pushed aside for other things. Some days (normally on the weekends) she stays much longer. “It’s part of my routine — rain, shine, heat or cold,” she said.

—“I leave my phone inside. Depending on the situation, I might bring my phone out with me,” Johnston said, “but I do not keep it on my person. I put it on a nearby table with the volume turned up, and I set it to Do Not Disturb mode — that way I can still receive calls from important contacts.” She also avoids listening to music or podcasts most of the time. “I let the music of nature be my soundtrack. It’s more calming and relaxing.”

—“I start by actively observing my senses.” When Johnston gets to her garden, she takes time to identify three things she sees, then closes her eyes and identifies three things she hears. She also does this with touch and smell. When she harvests her vegetables, she observes tastes and textures.

—“I try not to be so goal oriented. I’m a list-making, chart-following, schedule-loving kind of person,” Johnston said, “but I’m trying to make the gardening less about the product and more about the process.” That means during her 30 minutes, sometimes she’s productive, and other times she may not accomplish much. Either is OK.

—“I focus on the task at hand. When I do decide to buckle down and work on one task, I try to give it my whole attention,” Johnston said. “A lot of gardening is mindless work — like, say, weeding a bed — but there is so much mental health value in making a mindless task mindful. Instead of using my time weeding to think about what I’m going to make for supper or what my next blog post will be about, I focus on the color of the weeds, the way the weeds feel in my fingers, the smell of the soil. When I’m there, in the garden, I try to really be there. It’s not always easy, but the idea of practicing mindfulness is to be able to let those thoughts pass by without engaging. It gets easier the more you do it.”

I plan to put some of those tips to use for myself this growing season. I’ve already started some gardening inside. Using a tip from Jeannine Snyder, an Ohio State University master gardener intern, I did winter sowing of seeds in milk jugs, which act as miniature greenhouses. The weather has been so cold I’ve kept the jugs inside more than outside, but I’m finding joy in watching my basil plants grow.

If gardening interests you and you don’t have space for a garden, plenty of plants grow well indoors in pots or planters. All you need is a window or artificial sunlight source, potting soil, containers and other supplies based on what plants you grow.

Laurie Sidle is an OSU Extension family and consumer sciences program assistant and may be called at 330-264-8722.

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