The Health Benefits of Gardening

by frankbeswick

Gardeners do not live for ever, Adam and Eve didn't, but they tend to be healthy.

Modern society is moving away from the simple pill popping attitude to physical and mental health. We are increasingly realising that we are not just a mind in a machine that can be tended in a merely physical way, but we are a subtle and complex psycho-physical reality in which mind and body interact. Problems in the mind can and do result in bodily ailments, and vice versa, so we can adopt healing lifestyles, activities that care for both mind and body. One of them, an ideal one, is gardening.

Image courtesy of artzhangqingfeng

Allergies,Immunity and the Garden

The recent issue of The Horticulturalist, the journal of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture,  waxed eloquently on the festivals and flower shows that are highlighting the benefits of gardening for mental and physical health.  One quite surprising idea  was that manual work is important for the . the lymph system, which is vital for  waste clearance. This system has no pumping mechanism of its own, so upper body movement functions as a power source for lymph. Gardening is a gentle way of getting the exercise needed.This adds to the well-known physical benefits of gardening as a form of gentle, sustained exercise ideal for older people, though for younger ones as well.  

In his presidential editorial  Dr Owen Doyle addressed the human need for exposure to germs and pointed out that without exposure to germs in the natural environment immunity does not develop, and that children need to be exposed from early on in life. This point is made by Robin Jacobs, writing in the online article The Health Benefits of Gardening, who states that exposure to the beneficial microbe Mycobacterium vaccae found in soil generates resistance to psoriasis, allergies and asthma, the latter being a disease of modern societies. This bacterium, she states, may well be  a counter to depression, which arises from physical conditions in the brain.Some of her points are  reinforced by Doctor Doyle, who suggests that blood cancer [acute lymphoblastic leukaemia]]  in children is becoming increasingly known,  and he believes that modern sanitised lifestyles are to blame,a point that can also be made about asthma. Dr Doyle believes that exposure to gardens would be a therapeutic aid that might obviate the increasing prevalence of this and certain other kinds of cancer. He cites Professor Mel Greaves, who believes that the human immune system may become susceptible to cancer if it does not encounter enough bugs in early life. Gardening, Doyle believes, is an ideal way to encounter the bugs that we need.But so, says Dr Doyle, is outdoor play, which should be encouraged. 

Speaking for myself, I am completely allergy-free, and this benison cannot have been hindered by the fact that from early years I played in parks several days a week and later, when we got a garden I played in it very often. My first gardening experience was at the age of five, helping my father to plant flowers. Lots of bugs,mucky hands, and no allergies! Nor have I ever had asthma. 

Mental Health and Gardening.

Robin Jacobs began her gardening career in the Eastern USA, but has now settled as a counsellor on the West coast, where gardening is part of her therapeutic strategy. Her article, 6 Unexpected Health Benefits of Gardening, makes some pertinent points about gardening and brain health. One of the greatest threats to brain health is stroke, a condition exacerbated by stress. She cites a large Stockholm study which found that in over 60s regular gardening cut stroke risk by over 30%. A factor in this improvement may have been exposure to sunlight, which makes our bodies produce vitamin D and which protects against strokes. There is, of course,  a down side to this, as I have discovered. While my doctor told me that my stroke risk is zero, my optician informed me that my eyes have been subject to excessive ultraviolet light, so that now I have to wear protective refraction lenses on a permanent basis. 

We fear dementia,and gardening may have a protective affect on the commonest form of this ailment, Alzheimer's.She cites a long-term study of over 3000 adults that showed that daily gardening reduced the risk of dementia by 36%, while another study showed a 47% risk reduction. Why this is so she does not say, but Alzheimer's is a mysterious condition that is little understood. 

Robin discusses the benefit of gardening for stress reduction.  She cites a Dutch study in which following a stressful task half of the subjects were told to spend 30 minutes reading, while the other half gardened for the same period. Psychological stress tests discovered that the gardening group displayed greater stress reduction than  the reading group did, but there is more work needed here. 

The interaction between  mind and body is subtle and it is part of the great mystery of what it is to be human. Anyone who thinks that they understand human nature or tries to explain it in terms of only one academic discipline is seriously mistaken. Why do hospital patients recover  quicker and better when they can see green rather than a brick wall. There is a double mystery here. Firstly, what on earth is colour, how is a ray of a certain frequency range seen as green? And then how is it that green is therapeutic. Secondly, there is the mystery of scent. Scent is the most ancient of our senses, and speaks to the depths of our minds, but why is it so therapeutic? Why do sensory gardens filled with blossoms make for emotional and mental health? I cannot explain why, but they do, and horticultural therapists have great results from using them. On matters like this it is less important  to explain what makes for health and happiness than it is to find it. Explanation takes second place to discovery.  

A Garden

Garden flowers
Garden flowers


 There are several hale older people who share my allotment site.They are in their sixties and seventies, and one recently retired in his late eighties. Yet another is gardening on at seventy nine. Time catches them all  and the ailments of old age take their toll. But these gardeners are healthy for their age. While  watching Gardeners' World some years ago I saw an item on a man who was still  growing pumpkins until his death at 97. But it is not just men who display such health, for there are elderly women who tend their plots and who look healthy. These are ladies with a natural tan from working outdoors.

Slow, steady exercise with some exertion of upper body strength is what these people do. The exertion is not excessive, your heart rarely runs very fast, but it certainly is beating at more than it would were you sedentary.  But the mind slows down to a natural pace. You are not thinking of problems, as you would in a business or a profession. There is no demanding employer to oppress you. While I use language all the time, when gardening I find that sometimes words do not need to pass through my mind , as I simply focus on the task in hand. Gardening is therefore the polar opposite  of writing. I love both and they form a complementary pair of activities in my life.The complementarity is therapeutic. 

I will not say that gardening  is not competitive, for there are competitions,  but it does not have to be. You can garden generally in peace and quiet, simply left to yourself. When I am among my fruit trees I feel cut off from the rest of the allotment, which is obscured by the trees, and I feel tranquil and at peace. 

Horticultural therapy is available, but you do not need a professional therapist in most cases. You can care for your own physical and mental health by just going into the garden with your tools. And maybe not even with tools, for last night I dead-headed my wife's flowers when I went out to check on them.


Sources: The Horticulturalist, Summer 2018, From the President

Robin Jacobs: 

Updated: 08/10/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/15/2024

Yes. An Abbey is a monastery ruled by an abbot, as opposed to a priory, which is ruled by a prior, a monk of rank inferior to an abbot. Contents are run on the same set of rules as monasteries, but they are only form women.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/15/2024

Thank you!

Your comment below, in answer to my previous question, describes monasteries as displaying soul-calming gardens.

May the same be said of convents and abbeys?

frankbeswick on 02/15/2024

Yes. Monasteries had gardens designed to calm the soul.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/14/2024

The first paragraph to the first subheading, Allergies, immunity and the garden, advises us that "The recent issue of The Horticulturalist, the journal of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, waxed eloquently on the festivals and flower shows that are highlighting the benefits of gardening for mental and physical health."

Might there be similar concerns for emotional and spiritual health?

frankbeswick on 10/18/2023

We have a small green bin which is for compostibles. It is collected weekly.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/18/2023

A council compost collection is a great idea even as I find no such equivalent among us west-ponders apart recyclable pick-ups with garbage.

Recyclables must be clean of any residue and clear of any labels.

What would you have to do -- bag it? box it? -- to make sure that the back-yard compost gets picked up?

frankbeswick on 10/18/2023

Her flower plot is in our back yard. We have a council compost collection with the garbage.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/18/2023

The very last sentence, "And maybe not even with tools, for last night I dead-headed my wife's flowers when I went out to check on them."

Your wife's spent flowers must be in a front- or back-yard plot smaller than your allotment, correct? So perhaps Maureen needs no extensive disposal area. Would flowers dead-headed (by her, by you) go among mown-grass clippings or in the trash or into a compost pit or onto a compost pile?

frankbeswick on 10/17/2023

I have heard of grounding. I don't do it, but I I garden bare handed. You expressed a hope for my health. The disease that I have is incurable, so I will not get better. Medicine can hold it back. The doctor said that the aim of medical treatment is to make me as comfortable as possible. But I should live a normal lifespan.

dustytoes on 10/17/2023

Have you heard of "grounding" where you walk barefoot on the earth to absorb good energy? Well, gardening without gloves must be similar, when your hands are playing in the dirt and connecting with nature. I haven't been gardening much in this hot and humid Florida climate, but lately I've started turning my small yard into a "food forest". It's slow going, but I love to get outside each day and see what new things are growing. Overall health seems to come from a wide variety of things, and being in a garden has to be at top of the list important (maybe right behind eating well!). I hope you are doing better Frank.

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