The Healing Power of Gardening

March is almost here. The daffodils outside my front door are getting ready to bloom and the kids and I are discussing seed choices for our raised vegetable bed. So it has been fun to see some fascinating gardening-related articles in the headlines.

I had read a little about how beneficial gardening can be from the physical, mental and emotional perspectives. But I had no idea that there is a burgeoning field called “horticultural therapy” which is researching the benefits of gardens in a wide variety of settings including prisons, secure mental health facilities and residential programs for troubled teens.

There are many obvious benefits to gardening either alone or in a group – we get the health benefits of physical activity when we garden and we also tend to eat more nutritiously when we harvest our own fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that gardening also provides cognitive benefits – enhanced mood, less anxiety and depression and improved concentration.

There are other benefits that are present when we garden together with others. It teaches cooperation and social skills and also builds a sense of social support and reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation.

One of the key pieces that is discussed in “horticultural therapy” is the phenomenon of hope. The ability to hope is based on qualities like a sense of personal competence, an ability to cope and having a purpose in life. The very action of planting a seed in the soil requires hope. The research is showing that, for many people who feel hopeless, this involvement in gardening can encourage a sense of hope and healthy forward movement in life.

So how exciting, in the context of all of this research, to see a recent article on Seattle’s Food Forest (http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/02/21/its-not-fairytale-seattle-build-nations-first-food-forest).

The Food Forest is the first in the country and is set to break ground this summer. A seven acre plot of land will be planted with hundreds of different kinds of edibles: fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, vegetables, herbs and more. Anyone will be able to help with the planting as well as wander into the public park and eat whatever is available.

The planners have taken the whole environment into account so that soil, chosen plants, insects and bugs will be mutually beneficial and create a self-sustaining, perennial forest. The planners have also worked very hard to recruit community support and take the community’s design wishes into account.

I imagine that communities around the country will be copying this project in no time. Of course there are some anticipated challenges: What if one person takes all of the berries? What if the forest attracts many homeless people? But I think there is a bigger question – what if this forest provides “horticultural therapy” to a whole community? I think that’s worth taking a chance on.

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