Gardening Is Good for Mind, Body and Soul

If there’s one thing gardeners crave more of, it’s time, and with the stay-at-home orders put in place this spring to slow the spread of COVID-19, they got plenty of it.

“My gardens are probably more immaculate this year than they ever have been,” Becky Obermark, a master gardener who lives in Washington, remarked. “They have never looked better.”

Getting her hands in the dirt has long been a source of comfort and pleasure for Obermark, and she encourages more people to give it a try, especially anyone feeling stress or anxiety.

And no time is better than right now.

With many people’s summer plans canceled or put on hold, this year presents an excellent opportunity, said Obermark.

If you think of gardening as something people do just to beautify their homes, you’re only partially correct. There are many benefits to gardening that only begin with the beauty it provides, said Obermark.

Mood-Boosting Bacteria

While gardeners have long known from personal experience that gardening makes you feel good, Sandi Hillermann McDonald, who writes a monthly column called Garden Solutions for The Missourian and serves as president of Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, said science has found that there’s more to that than just sunshine and fresh air.

There’s actually mood-boosting bacteria in the dirt, said McDonald. Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant once it gets into a person’s system.

It increases serotonin levels and makes people feel happier, McDonald said, noting that was discovered by accident in 1995, when Dr. Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, tried an experimental treatment for lung cancer.

“She inoculated patients with the killed bacteria to boost their immune system,” said McDonald. “It did that, but it also improved her patients’ emotional health, vitality and general cognitive function.

“These studies helped them understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health.”

McDonald also points to research by Dr. Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University, who has noted that “good health is determined not just by access to medical care, but by a range of factors, including the quality of the physical environment” and that “exposure to natural spaces is good for our health.”

In a study from 2011, he lists that benefits from exposure to green spaces, plants, flowers and such to include improved concentration and memory, improved learning, reduced stress, accelerated healing and more.

“Gardening can have therapeutic effects on people who have undergone either mental or physical trauma,” the study reads. “The act of nurturing a plant can provide victims with a way to work through difficult issues and heal their wounds.

“Gardening is a therapeutic tool that can be used to help put people in a better psychological state during recovery and help them to work past the mental barriers that could impede their healing.”

McDonald said locally she sees several signs of the health care industry embracing nature. Consider the artwork hanging in medical buildings and offices; it’s mostly, if not all, natural scenes, she said.

“Mercy Medical Clinic has a garden that you can walk through. Children’s Hospital (in St. Louis) has a beautiful garden on the ninth floor. St. Clare (Hospital) in Fenton put in a therapy garden,” McDonald noted.

Good Exercise

Although gardening is not traditional exercise, it is physically engaging and does provide a good amount of movement, said Harriet Sallaberry, a master gardener who lives in Washington.

Obermark agreed, noting that just like traditional exercise, if you do too much in a single day or if you haven’t done it for a while, your muscles will likely be sore the next day.

“You are bending and moving in all directions, and you are stretching,” she said.

McDonald said gardening involves a lot of twisting at the waist, using your arms to dig and your legs to get up and down.

“And if you’re hauling mulch or dirt, that has weight to it,” she pointed out.

Other Benefits

There are numerous other benefits to gardening. For starters, Obermark said being outside in the sunshine is a great way to get the Vitamin D that our bodies need to function properly.

“We have to be careful and make sure we have appropriate covering on our body to make sure we don’t get skin cancer, but we know that Vitamin D increases calcium level and it helps your bones and immune system,” she said. “So it’s important to get marginal amounts of Vitamin D, and we can get that from the sun while we are gardening.”

Gardening also can help combat loneliness for people who work in a group, like a garden club or maybe a neighborhood or community garden.

“If you are feeling blue, there is nothing better than some camaraderie from someone who you have things in common with or someone you want to get to know better,” said Obermark, who serves as chairman of the community garden on the hill behind Peace Lutheran Church in Washington.

And gardening can be a tremendous source of pride, said Sallaberry, who tends to the flower beds at her home in Washington while her husband, Arnie, manages their new vegetable garden.

She finds it very satisfying and rewarding to be able to see the progress in the work they do, whether that is cleaning out garden beds after winter or watching plants emerge and grow.

“It always produces something you can be proud of,” she said.

Finally, gardeners who plant fruits and vegetables to grow their own food have the benefit of cost savings and better nutrition to help keep their weight in check.

Vegetable Gardening Is a Trend

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought stay-at-home orders for people all across the world, vegetable gardening was becoming a trend, said McDonald. It was led by people wanting to have more confidence in how their food was grown and where it came from after repeated recalls on vegetables like lettuce and spinach.

“People want to know their food is safe,” said McDonald.

Although it’s already late May, it’s not too late to start a vegetable garden.

“Right now is the time for warm season crops,” McDonald said, noting that includes beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash and gourds. “You have until Memorial Day to get those in the ground (or a container).”

Fall vegetables, which include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and lettuces (same as spring), should be started in August.

People who are new to vegetable gardening or who may feel intimidated by it may want to start small, either with just a couple of vegetables on a small patch of ground or even in pots or containers that they can keep on a sunny patio or deck.

Raised beds are another option, said McDonald.

“They are easier to maintain, because it’s like an extra large container,” she said. “It’s like the next step before going into the ground.”

Any garden center will have all of the materials you need to get started with vegetable gardening.

Tips for Getting Started

Whether you are planting flowers or vegetables, gardeners offered these tips for novices who may be intimidated by gardening:

1. Start with a houseplant or maybe even grow herbs in pots on the windowsill indoors.

“Having houseplants helps clean your indoor air and makes you feel better,” said McDonald.

Maybe start by looking for a flower or plant that makes you happy and find a place to plant it. Or consider what your interests are.

“If you like to cook, plant some herbs or a vegetable,” said McDonald. “If you like to hear birds sing, plant something that will attract hummingbirds or other wildlife. There are pollinator plants you can put out to attract butterflies.

“Think about what other the benefits you want to receive from the plants as well as the beauty.”

2. Consider container gardening.

Get a couple of pots of whatever size you would like to grow flowers or vegetables on your patio.

“You can easily mix vegetables and herbs in with flowers and make it a multi-purpose functional planter,” said McDonald.

“Baby steps are key,” noted Obermark. “You don’t have to conquer the huge garden plot in the first year. Find a way to give yourself some positive reinforcement that first year. A small garden or bed with some of your favorite flowers is a great start.”

If you don’t want to do container gardening, a small circle around your mailbox is another good starting point, said Obermark.

“But it should be some place that you see often so you’ll be experiencing the benefits.”

3. Ask questions and keep trying.

“We learn from our mistakes,” said McDonald, who compared planning a flower garden or home landscaping plan to rearranging the furniture in your house.

“Sometimes plants don’t end up working where you first plant them, so you have to move things around and experiment,” said McDonald.

“The landscaping in the front of your house can be like redecorating your living room, do it every 10 or 15 years.”

4. Don’t feel intimidated. There’s a lot of help out there.

If gardening is stressful for you, talk with your peers, said Obermark.

“Contact some people you know who are good at gardening or have a little bit of knowledge. They can tell you want plants grow best in sun or shade.”

If you don’t know anyone with any gardening expertise, Obermark suggested reaching out to gardeners you might see working in any public garden in your community. They very well might be master gardeners who are more than happy to share their knowledge to “grow” the hobby of gardening.

“If you see a gardener working in a community garden, get out and talk to them,” she said. “Ask them questions; open a dialogue. Don’t be afraid.”

Although Sallaberry today is a master gardener, she remembers feeling intimidated and unsure about her efforts.

“There is a learning curve to it, but you learn from your mistakes, and things are correctable,” said Sallaberry.

Gardening is definitely something you learn best by doing, she said. You need to get in and get your hands dirty to really understand and learn.

“I was intimidated at first about milkweed and providing the plants for monarch butterflies, but then I raised a few and set them off on their way to Mexico,” said Sallaberry. “You just have to dive in.”

Finally, there are gardening workshops available for a fee through garden centers or places like Shaw Nature Reserve and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

And there are countless how-to videos and articles available online through a simple internet search.

“If you have the interest, go out and explore!” Obermark said. “My best advice is just get out there and give it a try.”