Gardening for mental health: how just a few hours working outside can help combat depression and anxiety

·3-min read
Left to right: Thrive volunteers Ruth and Caroline, horticultural therapist Helene Guild, Chris, Max, Peter and Thrive volunteer Angus (H&P)
Left to right: Thrive volunteers Ruth and Caroline, horticultural therapist Helene Guild, Chris, Max, Peter and Thrive volunteer Angus (H&P)

Gardening’s mood-boosting power is well known by keen gardeners, but its use as a tool to beat depression and improve mental health is also backed up by studies.

Spending just a few hours gardening has been found to provide an instant reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety, while those who garden daily are less stressed and more satisfied with their lives.

Gardening is also one of the main forms of exercise for older adults.

No wonder there are a growing number of initiatives aiming to harness the power of gardening for wellbeing. One of these is Thrive, a south London charity with more than 40 years’ experience of social and therapeutic horticulture, whose mission statement is “using gardening to change lives”.

The charity takes care of four gardens in Battersea Park (as well as green spaces in Reading and Birmingham).

These include London’s largest free herb garden — which is well hidden in the park’s north-western corner — and the Old English Garden where I meet Helene Guild, one of Thrive’s horticulture practitioners, leading her weekly group of gardeners.

The group is open to adults with moderate to severe mental ill-health, autism, physical disability and learning difficulties. Participants might be referred by their GP or discover the groups on social media or via word of mouth.

“Gardening offers something for everyone,” Guild explains. “There is the physicality of it, the resistance of the spade in the soil, but there is also the cognitive aspect of gardening which is really important, especially here.

Max Divall in the lily pond in Battersea Park (H&P)
Max Divall in the lily pond in Battersea Park (H&P)

“And of course the social aspect. Chris, one of the gardeners in this group, takes great pride in making sure we are refuelled with tea and biscuits at 11 o’clock sharp.”

Guild’s gardeners keep diaries that they complete at the end of each session, as reminders of the moments they have shared and the progress they’ve made.

The group focuses on understanding the process of gardening and making the most of the social side of things.

For many, their day in the garden is the only consistent and structured thing that happens in their week. It offers stability, the chance to make friends and get out of the house. Some of the gardeners have been attending the group for nearly a decade.

Max Divall, a young Thrive gardener who joined the group just under a year ago, has discovered a love for maintaining the recently restored lily pond and fountain in the middle of the Old English Garden.

“In the water, Max is a different person, he is free,” says Angus Thomson, a Thrive volunteer who has been working with him. “Max is often quite reserved, but in the water he comes out of his shell.

“Much of the focus at Thrive is about slowing down to capture the moment, enjoying the here and now, and not worrying too much about the future”.

Three ways to garden for better mental health

1. Enjoy the process

Things will go wrong: the squirrels will dig in your pots and the foxes will flatten your flowers. Every gardener has forgotten to water a plant or has killed it with too much love. Try to find the joy and humour in your mistakes.

2. Do what feel good

Gardening has lots of rules. Don’t grow this here, don’t plant these then. Sometimes it’s better to just try something for yourself. You may be surprised at your successes and learn from your mistakes.

3. Make it social

There is a whole community of like-minded people who are just as curious and experimental as you are. Look out for local volunteering opportunities like Thrive in parks and community gardens.

If you’d like to support Thrive, it is always keen for volunteers and donations; thrive.org.uk

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