This is how gardening may benefit your mental health

Spending time in the garden can be just the tonic to help reduce stress levels and improve mental wellbeing.

Gardening beneficial for mental health.
Fragrant plants can have healing effects by boosting happiness levels and evoking memories, and (above) Toni Salter enjoys working in her garden.

Designing a sensory garden for people with disabilities was just the start of a rewarding eight-year journey in the field of horticultural therapy for Toni Salter.

“I loved the experience and could see the benefit the clients got from being outdoors and getting their hands in the dirt,” the president of horticultural therapy society Cultivate NSW says.

Defined as a process in which plants and gardening activities are used to improve the body, mind and spirit of people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, horticultural therapy is a growing field in Australia.

The qualified horticulturist and diversional therapist cites a growing body of evidence to support the health benefits of enjoying our natural surrounds, including reduced stress levels, heart rate and anxiety.

“The sensory stimulation of fragrant plants, textured foliage and vibrant colours can affect a person’s behaviour, sense of happiness and stimulate memory,” Toni says.

She has seen first-hand how encouraging aged-care residents into a garden setting can improve their wellbeing.

“As soon as they get into the space, they start thinking about other things … there’s distraction from butterflies and from the flowers,” she says.

“Studies have also shown people in hospital with a view to a garden have shorter stays and need reduced medication.”

For people with autism, getting into the garden can help improve behaviour and social interaction.

“Those with autism can sometimes get sensory overload inside, with loud noise, cramped space and strong smells,” Toni says.

“When they go outside, there’s a sense of freedom, and a little more control. Consequently, their behaviour is more self-regulated.”

Toni is keen to see gardening accepted as a recognised form of therapy in Australia.

“In the United Kingdom, horticultural therapy is recognised in a similar way to art and music therapy (as a) form of alternative health intervention.”

It’s something she would dearly love to see happen here.

‘The stronger my plants became, the stronger I became.’

Jeanette Penklis credits the simple act of gardening with helping to save her life.

The horticulturist was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012 and given just two years to live.

While she had radical chemotherapy and radiation therapy as part of her treatment, Jeanette believes what helped most when she returned to her Sydney home was a positive attitude and the daily ritual of watering a patch of almost-dead chives and bringing them back to life.

“I would hobble down the stairs and stand at the patch with the hose,” Jeanette says. “Those first few weeks I was quite depressed and very weak.”

In the United Kingdom, horticultural therapy is recognised in a similar way to art and music therapy (as a) form of alternative health intervention.

But she is certain the connection to her garden helped her recovery.

“Seeing my plants start to feel better gave me hope. I then started weeding, which developed my mobility. The next step was to plant out some seedlings,” she says. “That was such an achievement.”

“The stronger my plants became, the stronger I became. Slowly as my garden came to life, so did I. The oncologist is amazed and can’t believe I’m still around.”

While she can’t fully explain the science behind horticultural therapy, Jeanette believes being in the garden is about being mindful and living in the moment.

“The sound of the wind, seeing the birds, watching bees pollinate flowers … it’s about being surrounded by life. That no matter how bad things are, things are growing and life goes on,” she says.

Jeanette, who teaches therapeutic horticulture at TAFE NSW, has been clear of cancer for four years. “I have one more year to go until I am officially clear,” she says.

“Even now, if I don’t feel well, I go out in the garden and all of a sudden everything else flies out of the brain, just by focusing on a simple task like watering.”

Key design tips for your garden

  • Choose plants that establish a link between the users and the plants.
  • If wellness in the elderly is the main aim, select plants that were fashionable in their past, or represent significant life celebrations to help trigger memories and start conversations.
  • Stimulate all the senses including touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste.
  • Think about access. Ensure there’s room for people with wheelchairs.
  • Use a mix of colours to prompt emotions. Bright yellow sunflowers can promote happiness. Other plant species, such as ferns, can bring a sense of peace or calm.

Want to discover more ways to improve your mental wellness? Read our wellbeing content here.

Written by Karen Shaw

Lead image: Shutterstock