For all of recorded history, gardens have been viewed as places of wonder, capable of restoring health and peace to those who entered. Physicians in pharaoh-ruled Egypt prescribed walks through gardens to improve mental well-being. Monks of yore used their gardens to soothe world-weary travelers. And one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- the Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- was built by King Nebuchadnezzar to heal his wife, Amyitis, of homesickness and depression.
Today, research and insights are bearing out an age-old truth -- the natural world influences the mind, body, and soul in remarkably complex ways. "Gardening is a wonderful means to improve physical fitness and mental outlook," says Diane Roberts Stoler, an avid gardener and health psychologist who practices in Boxford, Massachusetts. Here's a look at how you and your family can improve your health, garden-style.
Cultivate Healthy Minds
Multiple studies show that a plant-filled environment helps people relax, raises pain tolerance for people with chronic disorders, and improves moods. One of these studies, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that regular exposure to natural environments such as gardens helps people recover from the ill effects of stress more quickly.
Why is that? "Gardens surround us with sensory feedback very different from that of the urban scene," says Maria Gabaldo, a horticultural therapist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Horticultural therapists use plants to promote health, well-being, and social contact among people recovering from disabilities, substance abuse, illness, and other problems.
Research from Kansas State University's Department of Horticulture finds that colorful flowers work more effectively than green foliage alone to reduce tension. "Flowers are symbolically and emotionally integrated with human life," says Eunhee Kim, the research assistant professor at Kansas State who led the studies. Seeing them can be a powerful distraction from stressful thoughts.
Gardening may also delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease, says Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist from Pittsburgh and author of Brain Health and Wellness. "It's an excellent mental workout because it requires sophisticated brain activity," he explains. "Learning a new skill, like gardening, helps plow and nurture new neural connections in the brain."
Pat Davis has been gardening at her Massachusetts home for more than 30 years. When she had a mild stroke at the age of 53, she could barely move, let alone tend to her flowers. But during physical therapy, she figured out how to replicate the exercises in her garden. Instead of pinching Silly Putty to improve her dexterity, she peeled the seedpods on her money plants. "It was very therapeutic," says Pat, who is now fully recovered.