Lessons from the garden for your mental health

garden tending

Gardens need TLC to thrive, just like you and your health. Here are lessons that apply to both.

Much has been written about the mental health benefits of gardening and the way in which time outside can be amazingly restorative. Gardening can also serve as a metaphor for attending to mental health.  As spring approaches and as more opportunities for gardening bloom forth, consideration of the parallels can be interesting and enlightening.

Provide the basics

Plants need food, sun and a place to grow.  Humans have similar basic needs, even though we get caught up thinking we need more gadgets and more complicated wish-lists. We thrive best when we are eating properly, breathing well, getting outside and feeling safe in our homes. Attending to the basics allows us to flourish.

Create boundaries

Just as knowing where the garden begins and ends is helpful for planning bulbs and measuring for mulch, individual boundaries within our own life are critical.  Boundaries can relate to things like when work ends, if phones are answered, or how quickly emails are addressed.  Healthy borders  on interpersonal relationships are just as important, being clear to say no and to say yes to the right people at the right time.  Having some level of clarity and organization in daily life provides structure, meaning and purpose.

Appreciate the wide variety of life

Walking through a large nursery or a mature garden provides a renewed realization of just how many species of plants and flowers exist in our world. The shapes, sizes, colors and textures vary tremendously, and  all add to the beauty of a garden in the cumulative effect. Similarly, our spouses, children, co-workers, and friends all come into our life with different strengths and weaknesses. It would be boring if we all looked, thought and relaxed in the same way. Embrace the variety, including in yourself.

Manage the weeds early

Those pesky weeds can really grow out of control but are so much easier to handle if they are pulled out before they get too deeply rooted.  Similarly, in life, there are negative events and troublesome times that happen but are much easier to address if spotted early. Some people are lucky enough to have fewer weeds and others have many, but tackling them in a direct, up front way always work much better than denying, avoiding or allowing overgrowth to overwhelm.

Accept imperfection by stepping back for the larger perspective

There will be weeds that get through; tomato plants which don’t grow as tall as anticipated; and seedlings which don’t sprout–despite vigilant efforts, watering regularly, and tending with TLC.  It’s not necessary to take this personally. Step back to admire the larger perspective, notice the things going well and choose to accept with kindness the notion of variance of success in our life.

Till the soil every once in a while.

Tilling the soil in a garden helps spread around nutrients and re-energizes the soil.  Similarly, there is evidence that changing up one’s environment every once in a while is valuable.  While we humans like routines and structure, renewing our environment  by moving around  furniture, painting a wall or taking a new route to work invigorates us with some new found energy.  Although change is hard, changing it up has value.

So whether you are tackling a small balcony potted plant or acres of greenery, consider taking note of how tending the garden can inform us about attending to our bodies and our minds.  Let the blossoming begin!

Photo by M. Dolly via flickr

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28 Responses to “Lessons from the garden for your mental health”

  1. Tony Briggs   March 29, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    When I was a child, my mom and dad had a huge family garden. It was my mom’s “pride and joy”. The garden was a major food supply for us because we did not have much money. She taught my siblings and I that you can live off the land that God has given us. The vegetables were absolutely delicious and very healthy. I will never forget our beautiful family garden and the lessons it instilled within us.

  2. Virginia Web   August 22, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Gardening is so good on so many levels… especially when your job revolves around a computer!

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    • Sandra Wartski   June 20, 2013 at 5:18 am

      Thanks. (I like the “dig it” reference!)

  6. John   June 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I think it’s great to take time out and smell the roses, so to speak. And I like that she’s wearing a hat to protect herself from the sun!

    • Sandra Wartski   June 20, 2013 at 5:17 am

      Taking time to smell the roses is another great concept that could have been included in the list of good mental health strategies. So true!!

  7. Donna   May 21, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Seriously!? Do you garden on your bare knees with bare feet, no gloves, and a halter dress? The provocative picture is not appealing to me and incredibly impractical.

    • Sandra Wartski   May 21, 2013 at 11:44 am

      I certainly don’t look so elegant and relaxed when I am gardening either! : ) I am guessing it is tricky to find a clip art photo which captures the sentiments for each of the APA blog article posts, but I have to admit that when I saw the photo attached to the article on the website, I liked how it was cheerful and peaceful. I liked the delicate, colorful, blooming flowers and actually interpreted it as a woman appreciating the fruits of her (or another gardener’s) labors. I guess it speaks to the variety of interest and preference for each of us!

  8. Abby Jacobson   May 15, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Thank you for this thought provoking article. As I adjust to another transition in my own life, I find I am very much at the time when I am sorting out which weeds stay and which weeds go in order for me to spread my roots and flourish in a new environment, a harsher environment than I am used to but one I am adapting to at a new pace regardless. While the winds may blow steadfast, I am learning ways to stand strong yet bend with the wind rather than against it….

    • Sandra Wartski   May 18, 2013 at 5:45 am

      May the winds blow not too harshly and may your roots give you strength. Good luck.

  9. Ghi Boissevain   May 14, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I can relate and love your article.
    I have used the comparison between mankind and plants for the last 25 years dealing with the public in garden centre sales. I have found that people better understand the needs and requirements for plants when related to the human needs and requirements. My customers became better educated and treated their plants much better. I also found that more and more of my customers became more aware of the therapeutic value of spending time outside with plants, birds, etc. I believe that the relationship between humans and plants can be so unique that that both can be affected when tragedy strikes. (I may be on my own on this one).

    • Sandra Wartski   May 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      Nice perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Kevin Kane   April 26, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I like to think of gardening as a chance to “go unplugged” and just let the brids do the talking.

    • Sandra Wartski   April 27, 2013 at 6:38 am

      Love the vision of letting the birds do the talking! : )

  11. maureen wartski   April 25, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post! How true it is that people, like plants, need care, maintenance, boundaries and love. Weeding, though a miserable chore, is key!!

  12. Sandra Wartski   April 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    no toxic sprays is a nice metaphor as well! thanks for reading and enjoying!

  13. Rev. Dr. Linda L Wilson   April 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    How true the analogy to manage the weeds early! I am an avid organic gardener and since we don’t use toxic sprays to deal with the unwanted, I have found it essential to deal with the weeds early. But I DO sometimes procrastinate and that’s when the problems arise! So true in life as well. Good comparisons you make to life with this subject!

    • Sandra Wartski   April 25, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      no toxic sprays is a nice metaphor as well! thanks for reading and enjoying!

  14. Rob Moore   April 22, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Good garden design (especially native) is tantamount to good ‘life’ design. Like the former, by taking time to become educated, eventually forming, and then implementing an intelligent plan, we create a solid foundation for success. We then need to remain cognizant of when it’s time to let go, while at the same time being mindful of our on-going role and responsibility as co-creators of our experience. These are the basics for empowered living in alignment with natural order!

  15. Arlene Schag   April 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Cultivating a garden is cultivating your spirit, I wish we had more gardens in prisons and preschools