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Unearthing the Therapeutic Powers of Gardening: Can You Dig It?!

By: Tina L. Hullender

As the surrounding landscape awakens from its winter slumber, the signs and scents of spring’s arrival render me nearly spellbound with anticipation. This first day of spring brings to mind images and inspiring ideas as numerous as there are wildflowers blanketing a meadow; a virtual bouquet of experiences awaits. Once again, I am summoned by the garden to give it attention and care, and in return, I’ll reap the benefits of time well spent. British biographer and historian, Jenny Uglow, sums it up perfectly, “We may think we are nurturing our garden, but of course, it’s our garden that is really nurturing us”.

Goodness from the ground up. Behind the disarray of clay pots and stacked planters, underneath spent perennial beds and leaf covered mulch, lies the source of the garden’s transformational ingredient and what scientists believe is a key component of our health. Dirt. Exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae, the bacteria found in soil, supports the immune system by suppressing inflammation in the body and enriching our gut flora. In a 2007 study integrative physiologist Dr. Christopher Lowry concluded that “getting our hands dirty” is good for our health. Contact with soil (and animals) exposes us to microorganisms and bacteria that we breathe in and ingest. Jack Gilbert, Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and author of “Dirt is Good: The Advantages of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System”, told NPR, “most dirt exposures are beneficial” (and) “the more parasites, viruses, and bacteria our immune system is introduced to, the better chance we have of staving off infections, allergies, and asthma”. Other researchers around the world believe exposure to soil bacteria can boost our mood and serve as a preventative to depression. So, dig in!

But there’s more to gardening than the nitty-gritty. Performing basic tasks in the garden provides the same benefit as exercising and jogging. Besides burning calories and improving cardiovascular health, toiling in the garden can reduce stress. Simple chores such as raking, digging, or pulling up weeds are ‘mindless tasks’ that psychologists refer to as procedural memory because they can be performed without thinking. While we are engaging in chores, our minds are given time to wander and daydream, allowing our brains to access information that was dormant. Thus, resulting in creativity, insight, and solutions. Researchers at Florida State and University of California Santa Barbara confirm that these repetitive motions have mental health benefits which channel our brains to engage in problem solving. However, mental health professionals advise keeping your garden to do list short and pleasant. Turn gardening into a hobby, not an obligatory chore. Don’t create additional stress by engaging in projects that become overly time consuming and physically taxing. If desired, limit your ‘garden’ to a few planters on a porch or patio. A container filled with a variety of herbs, or perhaps, a concrete urn displaying a cascade of colorful blooms to attract butterflies will give pleasure to the senses and provide a tranquil respite. Even on a small scale, the rewards of tending a garden remain beneficial to the participant. After all, it’s rooted in science.

Cultivate a natural habitat. Whether you choose to plant flowers here and there around the yard or design a vegetable garden, the goal should be to create a space where you can slow down and reconnect with the natural world. In her book, “The Happy Hour Effect: Twelve Secrets to Minimize Stress and Maximize Life”, author Kristin K. Brown discusses how this connection can restore attention, relax our body, and revive our mood. Take time to observe the garden’s creature residents. Linger at the event of a ladybug traversing a long blade of grass, follow an industrious earthworm wriggling through the moist soil, gaze after a blue tailed lizard sunning on a warm rock – marvel at tiny wonders! For more access to the natural world, welcome wildlife visitors to your garden. Create a sanctuary for wild birds by setting up feeders and a birdbath, or plant berry producing shrubs and trees that will provide a food source for feathered friends. Invest in native plants and flowering perennials to attract pollinators and enjoy beautiful butterflies, honeybees, and other beneficial flying insects. They’ll reward you by fertilizing and enriching the garden’s production. Watch for curious squirrels, scampering chipmunks, and grazing cottontails to become regular guests. Before you know it, your garden will become a hive of activity.

Branch out with new hobbies inspired from the garden. Take an interest in birdwatching; keep a list of the visiting birds and learn to identify them by their songs. Observing birds and their behavior can be enjoyed throughout the calendar year. My interest in birding evolved into wildlife photography. Snapping photos of birds perched on my feeders soon expanded to capturing all the visiting and resident ‘critters’ with the lens. Turtles, chipmunks, raccoons, wild turkeys, deer, hawks, snakes, lizards, rabbits, and insects, all visitors at one time or another to the backyard, have contributed to a wealth of photo opportunities and landed themselves in flattering album collections. Another garden related hobby involves creating a miniature ‘Fairy Garden’ featuring small plantings and decorated with whimsical figurines and tiny objects. Some nurseries provide classes and materials to get you started. What a delightful hobby to share with children of all ages?! Discover new interests that stem from the garden.

Bloom where you are planted. Even a humble garden can serve as an inviting space for reflection and meditation. Select a desirable spot for a bench, and create a peaceful space for solace and devotion by hanging wind chimes and installing a simple birdbath fountain, or some other inexpensive water feature. Imagine transforming a portion of your garden into a zen-like environment. Gardens have long been connected with spirituality and as metaphors of life’s lessons. The Scriptures are filled with descriptions and images of gardens and gardeners. For further insight on the spiritual aspects of gardening, I’ve provided a short list of suggested readings: “The Spiritual Dimension of Gardening” by Miriam Diaz-Gilbert at the, “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Gardening” based on Dr. Deepak Chopra’s writings, and “Ten Spiritual Lessons from Gardening; Not Quite Amish” by Valerie Comer. May you blossom with new growth and harvest beautiful experiences from a garden.

I will close with ‘Advice from the garden’: Cultivate lasting friendships, sow seeds of kindness, listen to sage advice, don’t let the little things bug you, be outstanding in your field, take thyme for yourself, and no vining! (

From my wonderful collection of friends, Tina Hullender and I have know each other for nearly 18 years having meet at the little league baseball fields when our sons were on the same 4 year old team. Tina studied Psychology and has worked as a counselor. Her interests are many and varied. She is an avid gardener, amateur wildlife photographer, enjoys traveling overseas, especially to France, is an art advocate and an animal lover, particularly those of the feline persuasion. She is currently working on a coffee table book collection of her wildlife photography. Be on the lookout for it!

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