Anecdotally, gardeners call their hobby therapy. Scientists are trying to prove

The other kids hated the weeding, but not me. In particular, I enjoyed wielding weeding forks, driving its tips deep into the earth and pulling them out. There would be the soft thumping of roots as they were dislodged and snapped, and a faint damp aroma as the ground pulverized from the earth. After pulling every last trace of weed and patting the ground, I was covered in dirt, sweat, plant juices – and a sense of accomplishment.

I could even go so far as to call such an experience therapeutic. Certainly, as a new study published in the scientific journal PLOS One clearly shows, mental health professionals have good reason to consider the possibility that gardening – as well as artistic creation, well known to all those who know the current craze for art therapy – can be a powerful mental health treatment.

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“Participation in both gardening and art-making activities resulted in apparent therapeutic improvements for self-reported total mood disorder, depression symptomatology, and perceived stress with varying effect sizes after eight sessions of one-hour treatment,” the authors explained after explaining how 42 healthy female volunteers were randomly assigned to parallel gardening and art-making groups for the experiment. “Gardening also resulted in improvements for indications of trait anxiety.”

Because the sample size was so small, the PLOS One study obviously cannot be the final word on whether gardening helps mental illness. Study co-author Charles L. Guy, a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, acknowledged this when speaking to Salon via email.

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“The best evidence can be found in meta-analyses, which are studies that collect a set of similar studies (usually with small numbers of participants) on a given topic, statistically pooling the results of the included studies, thus producing a more robust determination of treatment outcome outcomes,” writes Guy at Salon. Guy mentioned six different meta-analysis studies over the years that have shown “that gardening or horticultural therapy provides therapeutic benefits, including benefits for mental health.” Together, he argued that the studies provide “compelling, but still insufficient evidence compared to most medical practices based on unequivocal clinical trials.”

He added: “What gardening, however, has is literally millions of anecdotal accounts of self-perceived therapeutic benefits. I am saying from the perspective of experimental medical science that the therapeutic benefits of gardening lie hidden in for all to see, waiting to be tested and scientifically demonstrated.”

“A misconception that many may have is that gardening is a simple thing. It is not. It is a complex activity and in an experimental sense it is a very complicated form of treatment.”

More and more scientists are trying to provide these scientific demonstrations. Last year, an article in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening found that Italians who practiced gardening to cope with COVID-19-related anxiety reported “lower psychopathological distress due to decreased to COVID-19”. More recently, researchers from several colleges in Michigan interviewed a mostly African-American sample of 28 gardeners in Detroit; their findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, were simply that people who gardened “reported that gardening improved their mood, relieved stress, was an important part of their spirituality, helped their growth and provided an opportunity to help others.These results suggest that gardening can improve the physical and mental health of various groups.

That doesn’t mean, however, that anyone should feel comfortable just picking up a weed fork and digging in the dirt.

“Gardening as we provided it in our study was well planned and organized, just as horticultural therapy is a highly designed and planned treatment,” Guy pointed out. “A misconception that many may have is that gardening is a simple thing. It is not. It is a complex activity and in an experimental sense it is a very complicated form of treatment.”

Yet while gardening itself is complex, the human connection to plants is as fundamental as our very history.

“During our evolution, we have been surrounded by plants that have always provided an important part of our nutritional needs long before agriculture, provided a place to live, shelter and protection from the elements and animals that could hurt us”, Guy says Salon. “Even in our modern world, plants are central to our overall health and well-being.”

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