The Unexpected Health Benefits of a Garden

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When someone we know is stressed or under a lot of pressure, we tell them to stop and smell the roses. It’s become cliché, but this statement actually has proof in physical and mental contexts. Just as being stuck in traffic and coming home to a messy place can raise one’s blood pressure, being outdoors or simply smelling the scent of soil, flowers, and fresh air can do wonders to improve the mood.

Reversing attention fatigue

People working in offices (even those who work from home) usually create a sterile environment they believe can help them focus better on the task at hand. The problem with this kind of set-up is that, no matter how attentive someone is to their laptop and other gadgets, it’s only a matter of time before attention fatigue sets in. That’s when people get irritable, distracted, and prone to mistakes.

Plants and gardening as stress relief are quickly becoming favorite therapies of busy people. A small potted plant, a floral arrangement, and even a view of a well-tended lawn through an office window can provide much-needed distraction to someone who puts in eight hours of work in front of a computer.

Horticulture therapy

This is a new term for the psychological effect of gardens to one’s mental state. It is slowly being introduced to various programs for stroke patients, people suffering from trauma, and even to prisoners getting ready to be released. Horticulture therapy aims to create “healing gardens” for people to work on or just wander around in. Its practitioners believe that planting, weeding, harvesting, or just puttering about with soil and plants can alleviate pain, anxiety, and depression. Gardening provides a sense of control to someone who feels as if things are happening beyond their control.

It may sound simplistic, but an experiment mentioned in the Journal of Environmental Psychology sheds empirical light on it. It involved 112 young adults experiencing stress and attention fatigue. The researchers split them into two groups – one of the groups sat in a windowless room before being allowed to explore the city; the other group sat in a room with a view of trees and flowers, and then asked to stroll through a garden. The garden group showed a remarkable improvement in blood pressure and mood upliftment – physiological changes that showed up almost instantaneously.

Planning the right rehabilitation garden

As further testimony to the rehabilitative powers of plants and gardens, several architectural schools are now studying the best kinds of gardens that will benefit different types of institutions that need them. Many park programs, school administrations, and health facilities across the nation are working with landscape architects and expert gardeners towards this purpose.  

For instance, the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute has a healing garden designed to be a therapeutic tool for its patients. The garden teaches patients how to transition back into the community by dealing with physical challenges and being stimulated by nature. It’s laid out with various ground patterns and textures to challenge their mobility skills. At the same time, their family and hospital staff members can use the garden to revitalize after long hours of caring and assisting patients. Coupled with western medicine, this holistic approach has proven effective in bringing about a sense of serenity among patients and staff.

If you want to carve out a little rehabilitation garden for yourself, it’s best to take everything into consideration, including your schedule, stress levels, allergy history (if any), and even budget. If you don’t have the time and patience for a full garden, then it’s probably not a good idea to start an ambitious outdoor project which will likely cause you even more stress. Even a small sitting area in the patio or your balcony, surrounded by low-maintenance potted plants like cacti, snake plants, and perennials, can already do wonders. A yard covered with rubber mulch can help keep gardening maintenance low, as it insulates soil and allows water and fertilizer to do their work. When indoors, you can also summon the sights, scents, and sounds of the garden with strategically-placed potted plants, aromatic flowers, and wind chimes to catch the slightest breeze.

As Dr Roger Ulrich of the Texas A&M University said:  “If researchers had proposed 20 years ago that gardens and gardening could improve medical outcomes, they would have been met with derision and skepticism. We now have studies showing that psychological and environmental factors can affect psychological systems and health status.”

Resources:

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/07/08/why.gardening.good/

http://extension.missouri.edu/p/EQM105F

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-193859/Proof-gardening-healthy.html

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