Healthful Benefits of Gardening from the Ground Up

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
June 26, 2018

If you’re a gardener you know you feel better when you dig, plant and even weed the garden. If you’re not, trust us, there is research to back up the mood-enhancing benefits of soil and gardening.

Hands planting in the dirt

Scientist recently made a positive connection between soil microbes and human health including our emotional and mental state.  When a control group of rats was exposed to the antidepressant microbe, Mycobacterium vaccae, they experienced increased cognitive ability, lower stress, and better concentration.  Additional studies were conducted with cancer patients who reported they were less stressed and experienced a better quality of life when exposed to this antidepressant microbe. 

Scientists think this soil bacterium activates immune cells that impact the production of serotonin, often referred to as the “happy molecule”.  Serotonin is associated with brain function, mood and well-being generating feelings of happiness and relaxation.  Insufficient serotonin levels have been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar problems.

Further research is investigating the potential of using these non-addicting antidepressant soil microbes to help improve cognitive function and manage diseases like Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you are worried about contaminants in your soil, invest in organic potting and planting mixes and dig in. Create a few container gardens to beautify your patio, deck or front steps or build raised garden bed gardens. Help the youngsters in your life create fairy gardens in a pot or grow a container of grass for their action heroes or dolls to play upon.

Container Flowers

Further, increase these and other gardening benefits by creating a relaxing space in your landscape or on your balcony. You don’t need much room to craft a stress-free green zone. Just take some clues from other garden styles known for their ability to move you to a peaceful state.

If you crave order and simplicity a Zen-inspired garden may be for you. These gardens include clipped shrubs, raked sand and gravel, and minimal plantings. Zen gardens are about controlling the surroundings to create a sense of peace and a space for meditation.Zen Garden with plants, rocks and a bench

The key is simplicity. Select a few of your favorite elements when creating your own Zen-style garden. Use rocks to symbolize islands, mountain ranges, and other natural features.  Rake patterns into sand and gravel beds to symbolize water. And strategically add color with groundcovers of moss, creeping phlox, and rock cress. Only add a few small-scale cedars, yews and Japanese maples for additional greenery. Include a place to sit and use bamboo fencing, screens or clipped hedges to create a sense of intimacy or privacy as needed.

Zen Garden with Rocks and plants If this seems too extreme, incorporate a few small changes in your current landscape to create those feelings of peace and relaxation.  Consider color and texture when building any outdoor space for relaxation and meditation.  This emphasis on color when creating a relaxing garden getaway is called Geo-sense.

in the Netherlands. Focus on cool colors such as greens, blues, and violets that are calming and peaceful. Select colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel that blend and flow versus contrasting colors that can be a bit unsettling or too invigorating.  Avoid white that can be jarring; instead, use less harsh grays and silvers. The same applies to textures.

Enlist some traditional landscape design principles to help create the quiet space you desire.  Block unwanted noise and views with plantings or a fence.  Leave openings to view any beautiful surroundings like a nearby garden, neighboring park or attractive vista. These openings create a sense of spaciousness so welcome in space-challenged locations.

Add a fountain or other water feature. Looking at and listening to flowing water has a calming effect that can lower blood pressure and your heart rate. It also helps mask the surrounding clamor in your neighborhood allowing you to focus and relax.

Water Feature in the Garden

You’ll also enjoy the birds and butterflies the water and plantings attract to the garden. Bird watching is a very meditative activity. While waiting to spot your favorite or new feathered visitor you’ll have time to reflect and think calming thoughts.

Maintain that feeling of calm by keeping maintenance to a minimum. Select the right plant for the growing conditions and available space.  You’ll spend less time keeping these plants healthy, pest-free and pruned to fit the space. Grow fewer types and more of each type of plant in large groupings or en masse whenever possible. Not only does it create a calming space it means less maintenance for you.

Keep plants healthy with minimal effort by providing proper care. Water thoroughly and only when needed to encourage deep drought-tolerant roots. Mulch the soil to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and improve the soil as it decomposes. Use Milorganite, a low nitrogen slow release fertilizer to encourage healthy above ground growth and root systems. You will make fewer applications since Milorganite provides a steady flow of nutrients for 6 to 8 weeks.

No garden, no worries. Take a walk in the woods or other nearby green space and give forest bathing a try.  The goal of this practice is to slow down and become immersed in nature.  Take a slow walk on a gentle path and take time to engage all five senses along the way. Turn the cell phone off and listen to the birds, smell the scents that fill the air and experience all aspects of the surrounding woodlands. Engaging in nature helps clear your mind of clutter as you relax into the moment.

Studies found forest bathing reduces blood pressure and stress. It increases focus and energy levels while improving sleep and much more.

So get outside, dig in and take advantage of all that nature has to provide.