In 2008, upon first learning of my father’s CML (Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia) diagnosis, I found myself on my bicycle, rocketing down Hyde Park Avenue. Unable to think clearly, as I was awash with fear of the unknown and feelings of helplessness, I immediately headed to my 20′ by 50′ foot garden plot in the Southwest Boston Garden Club in Roslindale, Massachusetts—a small, residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Boston.
I sunk the shovel into the earth again and again; I turned over the soil with fury; reconstructed broken pieces of the trellis I’d built for my cucumbers; fertilized the plants (in those days, I used manure and compost only) that seemed in dire need of food; dug my hands into the raspberry thicket to retrieve the small fruits that were at the height of their growing season. It had grown dark by then. I sat at the small bench in the corner of my garden, the imagined the wind traveling through my plants, the now corn stalks dramatically swaying in the cloudless evening sky. The Kale, growing sweeter by the day, glistening with light frost. In a month, the land would be barren, all plants removed per the SWGC’s official policy. But after the danger of the next frost was over, I’d be right back out there, armed with trays of seedings I’d grown inside (starting in January or February), ready for another long, hot, and immensely beneficial growing season.
With the growth of urban gardening everywhere: from concrete, seemingly airless New York City to the slightly less dense neighboring (and largely harbor) cities of Boston, Philly, and Baltimore. And who could forget one of urban farming’s greatest successes and one of the US government’s most heartless actions: the construction and ultimate demolition of the coveted and beloved South Central Los Angeles Farm, which remains vacant and weed filled after five years. Those farmers and so many more are taking action in their communities by building new farms and seed bombs (made to toss in empty lots and still be able to flourish); establishing progressive agricultural programs (e.g., Green Guerillas) and forming urban farming collectives; and supporting locally owned and cherished plant shops (e.g., Sprout Home in Brooklyn). Audio Engineer and lover of the outdoors, Noel Benford, recently started a small farm underneath the stairs of his fire escape by installing an automatic drip irrigation system that works on a timer so the plants are properly feed three times daily while he’s not home. I transformed my own “backyard”—which was nothing more than a vacant plot filled with rubbish and was horribly overgrown—into a community gathering space with a garden path, brick patio for grilling, several garden boxes (and a plethora of potted plants, herbs, and flowers), and a long table set, propped up on unearthed, absolutely gorgeous vintage slate.
Gardening has been my longest standing joyful memory, as my father is a Horticulturist who first taught me about growing your own food and flowers—who made clear the true beauty and importance of that. Working the ground also helped me in vast and meaningful ways: it got me through periods of intense isolation, and extremely profound boredom and loneliness, of deep and seemingly unremitting anxiety and major depressive episodes. But what is truly beyond compare is the natural joy of gardening with parents and other allies, and most especially my partner—the aforementioned Noel Benford—who is doubtlessly a natural green thumb and quite the researcher. Clearly, I’d recommend it personally as a means of staying healthy, and fortunately medical professionals appear to agree.
So what are the positive emotional health implications of engaging in the pursuit of gardening, whether you live in town, city, or country? Well, take the notion set forth by the advancements of Horticultural Therapy (HT). According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), “Horticultural therapy (HT) is not only an emerging profession, it is a time-proven practice. The therapeutic benefits of peaceful garden environments have been understood since ancient times. In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and considered to be the “Father of American Psychiatry,” reported that garden settings held curative effects for people with mental illness.” Further, the workers and doctors at AHTA discuss their ideas of what really lies within the secrets of the garden: the it can be incredibly empowering for those with behavioral health illnesses, and a restorative, useful distraction method if also engaging the DBT model of therapy, painting “therapeutic gardens that enable everyone to work, learn, and relax” before, during, and after gardening; and that true Horticultural therapists are skilled at creating garden spaces that accommodate people with a wide range of abilities. People with physical or mental disabilities benefit from gardening experience and programs, and they learn skills and gardening methods that allow for continued participation at home.”
Perhaps the most strictly scientific argument for gardening are the facts that it is a natural booster of both serotonin and dopamine. According to research research, gardening can literally bolster serotonin levels, as contact with the dirt and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain and strengthens the immune system. Lack of serotonin in the brain causes depression. The research also delves into the increase in dopamine release in the brain when we harvest produce, herbs, and flowers. Researchers have also delved into studies evolved over nearly 200,000 years of hunter gathering, that when food was found (gathered or hunted) a flush of dopamine released in the reward centre of brain triggered a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release can be triggered by sight (seeing a fruit or berry) and smell as well as by the action of actually plucking the fruit.
Doctors who have used landscaping in mental health facilities of all stripes, have found use through the art of independent produce production. According to Dr. David Carr at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, “Patients (with Alzheimer’s or dementia), doing activities (gardening being one example) do better in the long haul and have a slower rate of decline than those who don’t do anything. Gardening is one of the non-prescription interventions that has the ability to slow the rate of cognitive decline.” Eva Shaw, PhD and author of Shovel It: Nature’s Health Plan, “gardening reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and helps fight depression.” A follow-up study by Kaiser Permanente clearly illustrated that the brain wave activity of a gardener mirrored that of someone praying or meditating. “Hospitalized patients’ wounds heal faster and they require fewer pain killers and antidepressants when they are merely looking at a painting of a garden,” Dr. Shaw explains in her book. “Imagine the effect a real garden can have.”
Additionally, in an environment where most think of concrete and mental and razor and barbed wire and guns, gardening has made the most demonstrative different toward not only rehabilitation, but of self and community-pride in correctional facilities throughout the United States. From MCI-Framingham in Massachusetts, an all-female medium and maximum security prison, I saw and continue to learn of, the demonstratively positive effects of gardening in incarcerated populations as well as homeless communities. A prisoner at MCI-Framingham remarked that she couldn’t have made it through the heat of the summer without the colorful and ambrosial gardens throughout the prison yard. “I literally stop to smell the roses!” she joked and smiling, a rare expression in prisons indeed. A true feeling of pride, of accomplishment, and of creating something beautiful for everyone to share in and enjoy.
So next year, no matter where you live, why not give gardening a try? Just choose a space, and recognize what you are working with (is it shaded in one part and not the other? Is the entire area in full sun? In the ground or on a mental fire escape or roof?). One of the MOST important steps one can take in gardening actually has nothing to do with the plants themselves: it has most to do with preparing the soil properly so the plants have apt nutrients to grow and flourish. Plant your little darling, whether grown from seedling or purchased from a local nursery, once the threat of frost has cleared; weed mulch, or do whatever your plants call for (the instruction will be readily available on the packets or by conducting a quick Google search); water your plants (not too much or too little, which takes practice, but anyone can do it by paying keen attention to the health of the young plants, now in the garden); and KEEP IT UP!
A great garden, the only type worth growing, takes time and dedication, just as we all do—and it shows in the results, in our brain and on the earth.