Other kids hated weeding, but not me. In particular, I enjoyed swinging a weeding fork, driving its tines deep into the ground and pulling them back out. There would be the soft snapping sound of roots as they were dislodged and broken, and a faint damp scent of earth spattered from the ground. After pulling out every last trace of weeds and patting the soil back in, I was covered in dirt, sweat, plant juices—and a sense of accomplishment.
I might even go so far as to describe such an experience as therapeutic. Certainly, as a new study in the scientific journal PLOS One makes clear, mental health professionals have good reason to consider gardening—as well as making art, which is well-known to anyone familiar with the current art therapy craze— can be a powerful mental health treatment.
RELATED: ‘My face looked wrong’: what it’s like to live with body dysmorphic disorder
“Engagement in both gardening and art-making activities resulted in apparent therapeutic improvements for self-reported general mood disorder, depressive symptomatology, and perceived stress with varying effect sizes after eight one-hour treatment sessions,” the authors explained, after explained how 42 healthy female volunteers were randomly assigned to parallel gardening and art-making groups for the experiment. “Gardening also led to improvements in indications of trait anxiety.”
Because the sample size was so small, the PLOS One study obviously can’t be the final word on whether gardening helps with mental illness. Study co-author Charles L. Guy, a professor of ecological horticulture at the University of Florida, acknowledged as much when he spoke to Salon via email.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
“The best evidence can be found in meta-analyses, which are studies that collect a set of similar studies (usually with a small number of participants) on a given topic, statistically pooling the results of the included studies, thereby obtaining -stable determination of treatment outcome results,” Guy wrote in Salon. Guy cited six different meta-analysis studies over the years that showed “that gardening or horticultural therapy provides therapeutic benefits, including mental health benefits.” Together, he argued , that the studies provide evidence that is “compelling but still insufficient compared to most medical practices based on unequivocal clinical trials.”
He added: “What gardening has is literally millions of anecdotal accounts of what I perceive to be therapeutic benefits. I say from the perspective of experimental medical science that the therapeutic benefits of gardening are hiding in plain sight, waiting to be tested and proven scientifically.”
“A misconception that many may have is that gardening is simple. It’s not. It’s a complex activity and, in an experimental sense, it’s a very complex 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 horticulture to cope with anxiety related to COVID-19 reported “lower psychopathological distress through reduced distress related to COVID-19” . More recently, researchers from several colleges in Michigan interviewed 28 primarily African-American gardeners in Detroit; their findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research, are simply that people who garden “report that gardening improves their mood, relieves stress, is an important part of their spirituality, contributes to personal their growth and provides an opportunity to help others. These findings suggest that gardening can improve physical and mental health among different groups.”
However, that doesn’t mean one should feel comfortable just picking up a weeding fork and digging into the ground.
“Gardening, as we presented it in our study, was well-planned and organized, just as horticultural therapy is a well-designed and planned treatment,” Guy pointed out. “A misconception that many may have is that gardening is simple. It’s not. It’s a complex activity and, in an experimental sense, it’s a very complex form of treatment.”
Yet, although horticulture itself is complex, human connections with plants are as fundamental as our history itself.
“In the course of our evolution, we have been surrounded by plants that have always provided a significant portion of our nutritional needs long before agriculture, provided a place to live, shelter and protection from the elements and animals that could harm us,” Guy said Salon. “Even in our modern world, plants are central to our overall health and well-being.”
Read more Salon articles on mental health: