The Health Benefits of Gardening & Nature

Get Creative in the Garden with Bryn — By on December 2, 2011 5:06 PM

There are numerous health benefits to gardening or being in a natural setting. Some of them are obvious-any activity burns calories, so it is easy to understand how gardening can be seen as exercise. However, many of the benefits of gardening and nature are psychological and not immediately apparent.

According to one on-line calorie counter, for a person weighing 150 lbs., general gardening tasks burn 272 calories per hour. Mowing with a walk-behind power mower burns 374 calories per hour. Harvesting fruits and vegetables burns 204 calories per hour. Weeding burns 306 calories per hour. Digging burns 340 calories per hour. Raking burns 292 calories per hour. You get the picture. Add to that the benefits of the bending, reaching and general stretching that gardening involves. (Of course, we must add in the general exercise qualifier-essentially, know your limits and don’t over-exert yourself.)

The restorative psychological benefits of gardening are less obvious but have a long history. Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions all represent paradise as a garden. The garden was a fundamental part of Christian monastic life and was seen as an important part of healing, providing sustenance, medicinal herbs and space for contemplation. Healing and spiritual powers also extend to nature in general. A fundamental belief of Buddhism is a connection with all of life. The most recent thinking regarding Stonehenge is that it was a center of healing. There were and are many pan-theistic religions that see spirits in all the different components of the natural world. This frequently extended to considering certain places-maybe a spring or a grove-as being a sacred place.

A number of scientific studies have shown that there is a connection between nature and increased health. In 1984, Ulrich published a study linking window views of a natural setting with improved surgery recovery times. A study by Ulrich & Addoms, published in 1981, indicated that there are significant psychological benefits to having a park located near a residential area as experienced by both frequent users of the park as well as by those comforted “just knowing the park is there” to visit. A study by Cackowski & Nasar, published in 2003, showed a higher frustration tolerance in people who viewed a tape of a highway drive with lots of vegetation than a tape of a highway drive with lots of man-made materials. A study by Kweon, Ulrich, Walker & Tassinary (2008) showed that men (but interestingly, not women) reported less anger and stress in an office environment with landscape painting posters than one with abstract art posters or no posters.

Increasingly, this awareness of the health benefits of nature views and gardens has been applied to hospital settings. Healing gardens and therapeutic design is a growing specialization in the field of landscape architecture. A good overview of the research on gardens in hospitals is given in the paper presented by Ulrich at the Plants for People conference in 2002. For a more in-depth discussion of the benefits of gardens in healthcare settings and design recommendations for such gardens, I recommend checking out the book Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, edited by Marcus & Barnes.
Gardens, parks, and nature in general provide us with a chance to get away from our daily stresses. They provide opportunities to daydream, breathe fresh air and enjoy natural light. We interact with gardens and nature through all our senses; bright colors and shifting light, the movement of birds, butterflies, and wind-brushed stems, the fragrance of a flower, a crushed herb, or the smell of wet autumn leaves, the sound of running water, wind in a tree, or birdsong, the feel of the earth under our feet, the soft kiss of petals, the roughness of a tree trunk and the taste of a fresh-picked tomato, wild blackberries, or clover stems.

One of the greatest joys I get from being in a garden or other natural setting is that it gives me a chance to reconnect with the world around me. In our climate controlled modern lives, where food (and, worse, food products) from all over the world arrives in stores for our convenience and we spend much of our time in front of a screen of one type or another, we lose track of the cycles of the real world. The cycles of day to night, or the incredible displays that happen in between such as the phases of the moon and their effect on the tides. Whether there has been enough rain to nourish the plants. What food is currently in season. Or whether the pollinator population is healthy so fruit is produced. I love watching the effects of the changing seasons and also seeing how a place changes from year to year. Seeing what plants are thriving, which didn’t come back, and why. Seeing whether the cardinal decided to raise her young nearby again this year. Watching the apple tree I grafted from two sticks turn into a tree taller than the house.

Gardening and nature can also be a good source of community. Gardeners tend to be patient people who like to share, whether their preference is edible gardening or not. Plants take time to mature and most gardeners appreciate that. Most gardeners will also have plants that have produced more seedlings than they want or more zucchini than they can eat, and will be happy to share or trade with you. Garden clubs abound as do group hikes. Even if you are inexperienced or out of shape, you should be able to find someone happy to share their knowledge or an easy group stroll that you can manage.

So what are you waiting for? Get outside! It doesn’t matter if you want to daydream in a hammock or turn the backyard into your dream garden, climb a mountain in the early hours to watch the sun rise from the peak or have a picnic lunch in a park, enjoy the privacy of a remote beach or help a garden club plant in front of the library, just get out and enjoy yourself.

Happy gardening!

Written in memory of my grandmother, Floy Owen, a life-long gardener. June 18, 1923-June 23, 2008

Bryn Richard is a licensed landscape architect with a strong interest in sustainable design. She can be reached at Bryn@BlueTrillium.net and welcomes your questions and suggestions for further articles.

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