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.
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.
Tamara Dorris used her Sacramento County, California, plot to treat an ailing body. In 2002, she was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, an illness that nearly killed her. She schooled herself in the theory that nutrition is vital to healing and gives most of the credit for her full recovery to her strict disease-fighting diet of whole foods. "I also believe the act of watering and pulling weeds and picking foods from the garden was meditative and helpful in my overall recovery," says Tamara, who wrote a book about her experience, titled Get Well Now!
Gardens are good for bodies in other ways as well, such as motivation for regular exercise. "Since so many people enjoy yard work, they are more likely to continue doing it for many years," says Lori Turner, associate professor of health science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. New findings uncovered by Turner and her research team indicate that gardening is second only to weight training as an activity most likely to ward off osteoporosis. All that pulling, lifting, and digging is a great way to expend calories too. A person weighing around 180 pounds will burn about 200 calories after 30 minutes of gardening.
More and more, evidence shows that people who consume diets rich in fruits and vegetables and get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day or so are less likely to develop a host of illnesses, including heart disease.
Best yet, all this bounty is no farther than your backyard. And the garden-fresh taste of homegrown veggies is out of this world compared to the taste of ones that have often been shipped thousands of miles to your grocer.
"Quality of life is directly related to the ability to closely connect to the natural world," says Nancy Easterling, president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. As gardening brings nature to us, it inspires patience and contemplation. Being responsible for the care of another living thing "can be very powerful for feeling good about oneself. We all need to be needed, to feel useful. Our sense of confidence grows in a garden," says Rebecca Haller, director of the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver.
An example of that philosophy in action can be seen at the Avon Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center at San Francisco General Hospital. There, you'll find Sanctuary Gardens, created by garden architect Topher Delaney as a way to nurture wounded psyches and offer a safe, serene place for patients. "Gardens are about faith in the future," says Delaney. "They are magical and miraculous healers of the spirit."
Your children may moan and groan about having to help in the garden, but you should still insist that they partake. Not only will they develop a lifelong love of things that grow, they'll have you to thank for a healthier diet.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, had fourth-graders learn about gardening by doing things such as planting seeds indoors and outdoors, spending time recognizing types of weeds, and studying proper harvest techniques. After 17 weeks of gardening, the children made a surprising discovery -- they liked many vegetables that kids are renowned for loathing. Among the vegetables the children grew to love: carrots, broccoli, snow peas, and zucchini. Now that's the miracle of gardening.
Freelance writer Betsy Dru Tecco works and gardens at her home in Pennsylvania.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, August 2004.