Early one morning, on our annual summer trip to Brownsville, Alabama, a small community outside of Goodwater, Alabama, my brother and I set off in the woods with my great aunt in search of just the right twisted trees to make a walking stick. Along this brief journey, my great aunt, with considerable enthusiasm, pointed out countless ferns, flowers, and trees, knowing each by name and on what seemed to be almost a personal level. I later learned that her love for plants and art not only led her to illustrate several related books but also helped to support her through tough times in life.
More than 45 years later, I still have that walking stick, memories of my great aunt’s passion for the outdoors and my own love for gardening and plant watching. I realize now, as a mental health professional, teacher, and researcher, that my great aunt gained some of the daily support that she needed through plants, as I now do. My perspective of the importance of human support through my work as a therapist has grown to include and understanding of how plants provide supports that we need for better physical health, and more importantly, support of our mental health.
Recent events in society have created needs and renewed connections between gardening and mental health. With growing mental health awareness and related needs along with a shortage of mental health care clinicians, alternative supports are more important than ever. One might say the support of gardening and plants that my great aunt benefited from and that I benefit from now can also benefit others that struggle with their own mental health.
What does research tell us? In a study of community gardening by Wood et al. (2022), it was noted that “Green social prescribing is one type of social prescription which aims to improve health and well-being through exposure to, and multisensory interaction with natural environments.” The results of another by Beavers et al. (2022) found that gardening not only had a positive impact of participants physical health; but also, improvements in their mental health including mood, stress levels, personal growth, and spirituality. Lastly, Ainamani et. al. (2021) found that “caregivers’ involvement in gardening activity was associated with lower severity of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms.”
So, what might this Caring Plant Support look like for you? From my own perspective, I would have liked to follow my great aunt’s love of plants as they supported her through her art, but unfortunately, I cannot draw very well. My own Caring Plant Support has manifested into an eclectic love of gardening and plant watching.
Several of my Vego raised beds are the home of a mixture of vegetables that I like to eat, ones that are new to me and that I hope to like, and those that I grow to share with others. My connection to flowers; especially those that are vine based has grown into a substantial container garden that I can enjoy on my porch in the spring and summer and put away for safe keeping in my greenhouse in colder weather. In addition to watching my own plants, visiting botanical gardens and arboretums has become a big part of my plant enjoyment.
Caring Plant Support may come in the form of an office plant that supports you through mindfulness meditation (A topic for a future article). Being able to take the occasional break during the workday as part of our mental healthcare is extremely important. Focusing on our plant(s) at different moments during the day can help to center our minds when needed.
Gardening can also support individuals in gaining confidence by successfully growing plants and while others may use gardening to reconnect to positive memories lost over time. Lampert et al. (2021) research found an “association between community gardening and positive physical (general health) and mental health (life satisfaction, happiness, mental health and social cohesion)” among those in the study.
Where to start this process of Caring Plant Support. Taking time out of our busy schedules for developing Caring Plant Support can be no easy task. A study by Fjaestad et al. (2023) found that “gardening for over 2.5 hours per week is significantly associated with better mental wellbeing and greater life satisfaction. This demonstrates that gardening as an activity, in isolation of additional physical activity, is associated with better mental health.” The 2.5 hours a week translates to about 30 minutes a day in garden and plant related activities.
One plant can be a good starting point. Whether it is one that you buy, a seed that you plant, or a cutting or plant from a friend, it is time to start your Caring Plant Support journey today.
Dr. Gannon J. Watts PhD, LPC-S, LAC, CCS, NCC, NCSC, AADC, ICAADC, Privilege to Appraise
Ainamani, H. E., Bamwerinde, W. M., Rukundo, G. Z., Tumwesigire, S., Kalibwani, R. M., Bikaitwaho, E. M., & Tsai, A. C. (2021). Participation in gardening activity and its association with improved mental health among family caregivers of people with dementia in rural Uganda. Preventive medicine reports, 23, 101412. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101412
Beavers, A. W., Atkinson, A., Varvatos, L. M., Connolly, M., & Alaimo, K. (2022). How Gardening in Detroit Influences Physical and Mental Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(13). https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.3390/ijerph19137899
Fjaestad, S. L., Mackelprang, J. L., Sugiyama, T., Chandrabose, M., Owen, N., Turrell, G., & Kingsley, J. (2023). Associations of time spent gardening with mental wellbeing and life satisfaction in mid-to-late adulthood. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 87, 1–8. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.101993
Lampert, T., Costa, J., Santos, O., Sousa, J., Ribeiro, T., & Freire, E. (2021). Evidence on the contribution of community gardens to promote physical and mental health and well-being of non-institutionalized individuals: A systematic review. PloS One, 16(8), e0255621. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0255621
Sempik, J. (2010). Green care and mental health: gardening and farming as health and social care. Mental Health & Social Inclusion, 14(3), 15–22. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.5042/mhsi.2010.0440
Wood, C. J., Polley, M., Barton, J. L., & Wicks, C. L. (2022). Therapeutic Community Gardening as a Green Social Prescription for Mental Ill-Health: Impact, Barriers, and Facilitators from the Perspective of Multiple Stakeholders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(20). https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.3390/ijerph192013612