The act of gardening can have a healing effect in many ways, including lowering stress, creating a sense of fulfillment and generally promoting peace of mind.

In fact, studies show that patients with clinical depression who engage in routine therapeutic gardening experience a reduction of severity of depression, and increased attentional capacity.

Jim Hines of Ventura working on his Matilija poppy.

“Just spending quiet peaceful time in the garden lowers your stress factor,” said Jim Hines of Ventura, a former nursery owner, landscaper and designer of healing gardens. “The greenery and flowers in bloom calm the soul … the garden is almost magical in its powers to heal.”

Hines, who grew up in the world of plants and gardening, said it was fun as a kid with his parents — and now a necessity as an adult.

“My work to protect the environment takes me to meetings with some pretty powerful people in Washington, D.C., and after a meeting with White House officials or members of Congress who are opposed to protecting our planet, I find that I cannot wait to return home and unwind, renew, reconnect and recharge in the serenity of the garden,” he said.

There is a natural sense of fulfillment and productivity that comes from growing and nurturing plants, said Lanny Kaufer of Meiners Oaks, who has been an organic gardener for almost 50 years.

Kaufer learned from an Ojai farmer named Guy Kelley in the early ’70s, who taught Kaufer and his roommates how to grow vegetables, irrigate, cultivate, fertilize and make compost. Kelley also showed them how to make homemade goat cheese and other satisfying life skills that come with the gardening and farming life.

Lanny Kaufer of Ojai composts for his garden.

“Gardening connects us to the earth and to nature,” said Kaufer, who nowadays focuses more on growing native plants like milkweed, sages, elderberry, datura, mugwort and others. “It’s what philosopher Terence McKenna calls the ‘felt presence of immediate experience.’ It’s the perfect antidote for the impersonal side of the computer-based existence we all find ourselves in to some degree.”

The act of making compost alone connects Kaufer to the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and creates a sense of being part of the oneness of all life.

“I’m recycling garden and kitchen waste back into rich soil for future plantings instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said. “That gives me peace of mind and helps me sleep better at night.”

While Kaufer can’t cite an experience where gardening cured him of a specific ailment, “It has healed me in the original Old English translation of ‘to heal’ meaning ‘to make whole,’ ” he said.

“When I feel anxious or out of sorts, too caught up in the pace of modern life, gardening slows me down,” he noted. “It’s quiet, too. Plants don’t talk back. They engage in nonverbal communication and show their appreciation for your attention by growing and producing flowers and food.”

Link between nature and healing

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population, and more than 50 percent of all people in the world, live in urbanized areas, according to Green Cities: Good Health, a website that provides an overview of the scientific evidence of human health and well-being benefits provided by urban forestry and urban greening.

Nature in cities and towns includes parks, gardens, trees, small landscapes and natural areas, all of which provide many benefits.

“Given the high population densities of urban areas, every bit of nearby nature has the potential to benefit hundreds to thousands of people daily,” according to Green Cities: Good Health, which noted that studies in health-care settings show a link between nature and healing.

For instance, nature contact may serve to supplement or augment medical treatment and therapy; and both passive exposure to landscapes and more active interactions with nature provide mental and physiological benefits that contribute to healing and therapy.

In an effort to indicate the benefits, Green Cities: Good Health offered the following fast facts:

  • Hospital patients with plants in their rooms display less fatigue and pain, shorter hospitalization, less anxiety and higher hospital and room satisfaction.
  • Patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain who participated in a four-week horticultural therapy program experienced an increase in mental and physical health as well as an improved ability to cope with chronic pain.
  • A study of children with Attention Deficit Disorder who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than those who played in grassy, outdoor spaces.
  • Patients with clinical depression who participated in routine therapeutic gardening activities experienced a reduction of severity of depression, and increased attentional capacity, benefits that lasted up to three months after the program ended.
  • Gardening may be a preventive measure to help reduce the onset of dementia; gardening on a daily basis was found to reduce risk factors for dementia by 36 percent.
  • Dementia patients who have access to gardens are less likely to display aggression or experience injuries be show improved sleep patterns, balanced hormones, and decreased agitation.

Gardening promotes meditative awareness and peace

Gardening can be an excellent way to experience certain kinds of physical healing — and from an exercise science point of view, it entails movements that are compatible with kinetic therapies, said Sam Thomas, of Thousand Oaks, who operates a one-third-acre garden on the campus of California  Lutheran University.

Thomas Sam of the Sustainable Edible Education program at California Lutheran University.

The CLU SEEd Project garden

“It’s called the SEEd Project — stands for Sustainable Edible Education — and each year we engage hundreds of students, faculty, staff and members of the broader community,” said Thomas, who also teach courses including “Religion and Ecological Ethics” and “Food, Religion, and the Environment.”

“From a mental health perspective, gardening can help with anxiety and depression, among other issues, and I’m aware for example that veterans of the U.S. military have found gardening and farming to be helpful in dealing with PTSD,” Thomas said.

From the spiritual side of things, “gardening helps to reorient people to a more holistic view of the world, in which we find ourselves part of broader ecosystems and human communities,” he said. “Gardening can become a kind of devotional practice that brings meditative awareness and peace.”

Gardening is a way to reconnect

Nature deficit disorder is real, and its effects are felt by most of us who live in contemporary, developed societies, Thomas noted.

“We are evolved for deep contact and interaction with the natural world, and yet our daily lives tend to be structured in a way that separates us from our ecological contexts,” he said. “Gardening is a way to reconnect and experience what has been bred in our bones.”

Additionally, gardening requires attention and observation, “which means suspending whatever other cares and concerns we may have in favor of the tasks at hand,” he continued. “Seeding, weeding, pruning, planting, composting, harvesting, eating … as we attend to the necessities of a well functioning garden, we become less anxious and more connected to the real world.”

Benefits of horticultural therapy

Preliminary studies have reported the benefits of horticultural therapy and garden settings in reduction of pain, improvement in attention, lessening of stress, modulation of agitation, lowering of as needed medications, antipsychotics and reduction of falls, according to “What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly?” published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

This literature review presented the data supporting future studies of the effects of natural settings for the long-term care and rehabilitation of the elderly having the medical and mental health problems frequently occurring with aging.

The review noted that horticultural therapy employs plants and gardening activities in therapeutic and rehabilitation activities to improve human well-being.

According to the review, horticultural therapy and exposure to gardens has been shown to have positive benefits for the elderly. Indoor gardening has been reported to be effective for improving sleep, agitation and cognition in dementia patients. As a cognitive therapy, horticultural therapy helps clients learn new skills and regain lost skills.

“It is a restorative technique to improve memory, attention, sense of responsibility and social interaction with few to no adverse side effects,” the review indicated. “Moreover, horticultural therapy has been found to reduce stress, to increase feelings of calm and relaxation, to foster a sense of accomplishment and to improve self-esteem.”

Gardening is also an excellent way to get physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes that active people are less likely than inactive people to be obese or have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death.

Gardening can affect outlook on life

Kathy Boals, president of the Conejo Orchid Society, was first exposed to gardening by her paternal grandfather, who was a groundskeeper and gardener for the Los Angeles City Parks Department and loved all things plant-related.

“His garden in Highland Park had no lawn but was a wonderland of sub-tropical fruit trees —banana, sapote, avocado, carob — as well as many other kinds of ornamental and fruit-producing plants, vines and shrubs,” recalled Boals of Newbury Park.

“He composted all his trash and even buried metal food cans so that they would provide minerals for his trees,” she continued. “He taught me how to save and plant seeds, properly harvest fruits and vegetables plus passed on a plethora of other great old-fashioned gardening knowledge. As a child I grew a few vegetables in my parents’ garden but only started gardening in earnest once I had a home of my own.”

Gardening not only provides one with a lovely environment, food and flowers, but can really affect a person’s mood and outlook on life, Boals noted.

“In times of stress, illness or just day to day aggravation, working in the garden can really have a great healing effect,” she said. “A garden is a living thing and, like a child or a pet, needs attention on a daily basis. Just knowing that there is something that needs your attention can really boost your mental and physical energy. Even if you can only manage to water a few things, you feel better knowing that you have accomplished something important.”

Another way that gardening heals us is through the simple act of enjoying the sheer beauty of nature.

“When you are a gardener, you want to get up in the morning and see what flowers have opened, what seeds have sprouted, what fruit has ripened and so much more,” Boals said.

She believes that gardening truly gives you a reason for living.

Gardening also teaches us things that can be very valuable when life isn’t going so well, she noted, such as patience, persistence and creative thinking.

“Seeds or plants planted today may not produce or bloom for months or even years,” Boals said. “Pests destroy your favorite and hard-won seedlings but you keep going, knowing that you can try again. There are other varieties of plants that may do better for you, and you can often come up with very creative ways to foil pests. A good gardener never gives up entirely — they just take another approach.”

Since being exposed to gardening through her paternal grandfather, “I don’t think I would be happy without at least some kind of garden.”

“Just going into the garden lifts my spirits and gets me revved up for the future,” Boals said. “A garden is always changing, challenging the gardener and giving immense pleasure.”

There is aggravation, too, she noted, “but dealing with that as well as the planning, daily chores, successes and failures in a garden really help to train us to handle what life outside the garden throws at us. You can always take out your frustrations by digging out the stump of that bush that didn’t quite work out.

You don’t need a green thumb

You don’t have to have a green thumb or be an expert to reap the benefits of gardening, Hines said.

Rather, one must have “just the ability to care and nurture plants and a willingness to allow oneself to be in a calm reflective place to absorb all of the healing energy which plants give us humans,” he said.

Boals has heard many people say, “I love flowers but I kill everything — I just can’t garden.”

“Not true,” she emphasized. “Anyone who is willing to put forth just a small effort to learn the basics can garden.”

Don’t forget that even the best gardeners had to start small and learn the hard way, she said.

“All of us have killed our share of plants and still have failures — that’s what the compost heap is for; get rid of the evidence,” she said. “I have learned to look at these not as failures but as opportunities to try something new. Gardening is not difficult or complicated. It just takes a bit of education, persistence and patience.”

Even people with just a small patio or balcony or even no outdoor space can enjoy the benefits of gardening.

“A few big or small pots planted with plants that are appropriate for the space can give a lot of pleasure,” Boals advised. “Indoor plants can either grow by a window or can be augmented with artificial lighting. The trick is to get plants that are right for your environment and then give them the daily attention that makes them happy.”

According to Kaufer, “almost anyone can enjoy gardening at some level, whether it’s growing sprouts on the counter, herbs on a windowsill, potted plants on a patio or a full-fledged garden.”

Hines noted that most apartments have a small patio or balcony where one can grow plants in containers.

“Indoor plants are also a fun way to allow plants to impact your life in a positive way,” Hines added.

Thomas recommends trying small-scale gardening in a kitchen window or in some pots on the patio — just be aware that most plants need sunlight.

“There are creative solutions for indoor gardening as well, such as wall gardens and DIY planter projects,” Thomas said.

There are also places to volunteer, such as school campuses and community gardens, and even gardens at churches, synagogues and mosques.

“Community Roots garden in Oxnard is a great example of a grass-roots project that allows people to garden in a collective way and we need more projects like this around Ventura County,” Thomas said.

In addition to all the beauty and healing that one gets from the physical act of gardening, there is another even better benefit: fellow gardeners, Boals added.

“I have found so many wonderful people through gardening,” she said. “They have made my life so very much richer than I ever imagined. Talk about the healing power of gardening: What could be better than good friends when you need someone to help you weather one of life’s storms?”