Why gardening can grow your mental well-being and cultivate friends

Looking for a simple change that can improve your physical, mental and emotional health? Try gardening.

People garden indoors and out, in different weather and climes and with different intensities and goals. Research consistently shows that gardening has a positive effect on mental health and well-being. And emerging research suggests that gardening may also be a way into healthy behavioral changes writ large.

Why is gardening such a healthy pursuit? Research suggests that there are two main pathways that lead gardeners to mental well-being. One is through the connection with nature and its aesthetic beauty. But another, perhaps surprisingly, is how gardening can also be a way for us to connect with other people.

“I feel like it’s just about bringing the pieces back together of what makes us human,” said Jonathan Kingsley, senior lecturer of health promotion at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

Why people enjoy gardening

Gardening can be a rich, multisensory experience, and gardeners typically cite the gardens as a source of pleasure and joy, escape or curiosity and learning.

“It’s the taste, the texture, the sensation … wind on your face and your hair, just feeling the elements of nature. And it helps people feel alive, awakening in some way,” said Jill Litt, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. “These are things that are very therapeutic.”

Recent research suggests that the smells of nature may impact well-being, and nature sounds such as birdsong also boost mental health.

Like other nature-based activities, gardening may derive some of its benefits from reducing stress. The attention restoration theory hypothesizes that natural stimuli may decrease mental fatigue by gently holding our attention with “soft fascination.”

But one trait that makes gardening stand out is that it “requires active participation” and “getting the hands in the dirt,” said Litt, who’s also a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You have to do something.”

With weeding, watering, digging, sowing, pruning and other such horticultural duties, gardening can be a physically demanding hobby. And physical exercise has also been shown to improve mental health.

Growing greens and cultivating connections

Gardening may not only help connect us to nature, but with other humans. Community gardening in a shared space can build trust, as people look after one another’s plots of land, and offer help and advice. This social growth is slow and steady, grounded by a shared purpose, a sense of belonging and learning. “All of it’s textbook on how you build strong relationships,” Litt said. And the “garden calls them to come back, because they have a responsibility.”

But even gardening at home is linked to greater social connectedness. In earlier research, Litt and her colleagues found that home gardeners were more socially involved – more likely to communicate with local elected officials or participate in parent-teacher associations, for example – than non-gardeners.

Home gardeners were also more likely to positively rate the aesthetics of their neighborhood. Both the increased social involvement and aesthetics ratings were associated with better health. Participating in community gardening further enhanced these effects.

Other research has found that gardening in the front yard, where the fruits of your labor are more visible, may also foster social connections and better mental health, said Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui, an independent researcher in Britain specializing in the influence of gardening on well-being.

In one study, Chalmin-Pui and her colleagues transformed 38 bare front yards into gardens for 42 participants. Three months later, the study participants reported lower stress and had healthier cortisol patterns.

The gardens provided more opportunities for participants to bump into their neighbors, and the plants provided an easy conversation starter. When Chalmin-Pui followed up with the participants after a year and a half, she found that people had gotten to know their neighbors.

Some had lived on the same street for 10 years. “But it was only after they both got plants in their front yard that they actually struck up a conversation,” Chalmin-Pui said.

Chalmin-Pui recalled another study participant who was dealing with mental health issues and physical disability. The woman told her that the plants were a “lifesaver” and that “it was the first time that she had felt human in years.”

“She felt that she was keeping them alive,” Chalmin-Pui said. “And the fact that she was keeping them alive meant that she was capable of doing something.”

Gardening as a way to lasting behavioral change

Many of the studies investigating the health benefits of gardening are observational and correlational, so it is difficult to know whether it was the gardening that caused the health changes or whether certain types of people who already had these health behaviors were more drawn to gardening.

In the first randomized controlled trial testing the effect of community gardening on health, Litt and her colleagues worked with 37 community gardens in the Denver and Aurora, Colorado, area to more directly test how gardening impacts health. For the study, 291 participants who had not gardened within the past two years were randomly selected to receive a community garden plot or remain on the waitlist.

Compared to waitlisted participants, those who gardened had increased moderate to vigorous physical activity – on average, 40.6 minutes more per week. They also consumed more fiber – about 1.4 grams of roughage each day. After one season of gardening, they also reported lower levels of stress and anxiety.

Though the size of behavioral change was modest, it was a tangible start in line with other health behavior interventions. “We see gardens as an agent of health behavior change,” Litt said.

After the data collection ended, the waitlist participants were also given a garden plot, and over half started gardening the following season, Litt said.

How much gardening do you need?

Researchers are still digging up the details on what “dose” of gardening reaps the most mental health benefit.

In a study published last year surveying 4,919 middle-aged and older adults in Australia, Kingsley and his colleagues reported that gardening for at least 2.5 hours each week was associated with better self-reported mental well-being and life satisfaction. These benefits were stronger for adults 64 and older.

The time in your garden oasis is “competing against other forces that are impacting your mental health every day,” Kingsley said. Though the study was correlational, Kingsley theorizes that 2.5 hours per week in the garden may be a sweet spot to meet that threshold.

For beginners, you can start small. Just a few potted plants indoors is still gardening. Some plants, like mint, are vigorous growers and may be easier for beginner gardeners to keep alive. But growing plants you personally enjoy is probably key, Chalmin-Pui said.

And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and make mistakes.

Gardening is “a kind of trial and error and just experience thing, which is life,” Kingsley said. “You’ll have lots of failures and wins in this. And that’s just what life is.”