Plants, Gardening and Mental Health

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Published on October 10th 2019
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A close up of a green plant
Here at Candide, plants play an integral role in our professional and personal lives, and a lot of us have seen firsthand the positive impacts that plant care can have on mental health.
So, as part of World Mental Health Day 2019, we thought we would share with you some of the benefits plants and gardening provide on mental wellbeing and why scientists think this might be.
It would be wrong of us to tell you that looking after plants or gardening is a sure-fire way to improve poor mental health. Everyone is different and will have different needs and strategies, of which plant care may be a part.
If you're struggling, here are a few services and organisations that offer support.
Can you tell we like plants!

How can plants help mental health?

You likely know someone who has benefitted from looking after plants, and most gardeners will have something to say on the subject.
As well as individual experiences, the positive effects of gardening on psychological, cognitive, social and physical wellbeing have been demonstrated in numerous studies.
This research and experience have been incorporated into the practices of mental health professionals in what is now referred to as horticultural therapy. The NHS has even started prescribing potted plants to patients to combat loneliness.
A close up of lemon balm
Lemon balm was one of the plants prescribed. This herb is thought to also help combat stress, nervousness and anxiety.
Here, I'll try and stick to some hard science, but encourage you to go out and ask any plant lover about their own personal journey. And there's a tonne more research out there if that's your thing.

Cognitive Wellbeing

Studies have demonstrated that natural settings can improve cognitive functions for all ages.
Natural elements in the home have been demonstrated to improve cognitive function in children.
At the other end of the spectrum, several studies have looked at how gardening can help combat dementia and Alzheimer's in the elderly. One study looked at how gardening lowers the risk of dementia..
Another, published in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, found that mental capacities deteriorated slower in Alzheimer's patients who gardened twice a week for 12 weeks.
Gardening can help the cognitive function of people of all ages

Psychological Wellbeing

The psychological benefits are a bit harder to quantify than impacts on cognitive function.
They include using plant care as a way to deal with stress and enhance peace and wellbeing. From the act of gardening itself to the sense of accomplishment you feel when a plant blooms or bears fruit.
a child holding a tomato
Don't take our word for it...
Studies suggest that gardening can act as a coping strategy for people with cancer, providing a sense of well-being and peace.
Other studies have found that gardening can reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

Social Wellbeing

Although plant care can be therapeutic as a solo activity, it can also be a highly social activity.*
The benefits of people coming together over plants include the sharing of knowledge, the development of communication skills and connecting people with the land.
Check out the work of organisations like Incredible Edible to find out more and get involved!

Why do plants improve wellbeing?

What's important to consider is that plants are physical representatives of nature within urban environments. They offer links to nature that are becoming increasingly lost in modern society. So a lot of the mental benefits associated with looking after plants are similar to those gained when spending time connecting with nature.
There are a couple of theories as to why plants and gardening can improve wellbeing.
One is that we have evolved with an ingrained need to connect with living things, and working with plants fulfils this. Studies have shown that people have preferences for savannah-like scenes, areas where humans spent most of our time evolving.
Another theory suggests that modern life is so full of stimuli that require so much attention that we can become mentally exhausted. Interactions with nature don't require this attention, providing an escape from the everyday and a place for curiosity and fascination to arise. This natural reset allows us to restore our ability to focus and alleviate stress.
A similar theory posits that modern life overwhelms our senses with stimuli, causing stress. Areas with plants again provide a refuge in which we can restore our senses in a non-threatening environment free from the negative aspects of society.
A close up of a flower garden
A perfect garden refuge if I've ever seen one
The empathetic connections that people form with plants are equally as important as the natural elements. Like us, they grow, respond to care, live and die. And the stakes aren't as high as in other aspects of life. It's not the end of the world if a couple of your tomato plants don't work out.
We spoke with Annabelle Padwick, Founder and Director of Life at no.27. As a Gardening and Wellbeing Therapist, Annabelle works with schools (and is currently creating adult-therapy sites) to empower people, based on her own experiences.
'One of our main aims is to support and provide a place where people can be in control, take ownership of and build confidence.' Annabelle told us. 'Making people smile isn't measurable, and it's important to learn that not everything goes your way, some things just won't work, and you'll have to try something else.'
Annabelle currently works predominantly with children but is working with the NHS on incorporating garden therapy into social prescriptions given out by GPs.

Air purifying plants

Since NASA experimented in the 1980s, tales of plants purifying air to improve wellbeing have been rife. All plants naturally filter the air, but this is insignificant compared to the natural ventilation of most rooms (the NASA experiments took place in an airtight environment to mimic space travel).
Astronaut flying in open space over the USA during night, near earth
NASA's original experiment looked at whether plants could help clear up toxins in spacecraft.
This quote from a houseplant shop employee, taken from an excellent article earlier this year for The Atlantic, sums up our feelings nicely:
'I guess I could imagine putting peace lilies all over the place. Then your home would be very full of peace lilies, but unless you really loved peace lilies and snake plants, it might not be something that brings you joy.' And joy, not marginal air pollution, is the real reason to own a plant.
'Bringing plants in, bringing greenery in—it’s about having something near you that’s alive, that you’re caring for, that brings you joy and happiness,' she said. 'And that affects your mood, whether or not it’s giving you more oxygen to breathe or something.'
*In light of the coronavirus, we recommend against gardening in large groups, but highly recommend it as a solo activity.

We'd love to hear about your experiences with plants and gardening in the comments!

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