Gardening And Health: Healing With Horticulture

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greenhouse tomato garden

Gardening has many physical and mental health benefits for people of all ages and life situations. Here are some examples you can implement yourself.


Twice I’ve watched all three seasons of Orange is the New Black. Of course, some of my favorite episodes are the ones where the senior inmates at Litchfield Women’s Prison have put an old greenhouse back into operation.

I won’t say too much as a spoiler, in case you haven’t seen it, but there is a hatch in the floor that leads to a secret tunnel to the outside. One inmate begins to use it to smuggle contraband into the prison. Another inmate says she doesn’t want to get involved in those activities. She only wants to ‘grow things’.

Gardening for rehabilitation

Prison garden programs are popping up all over the US, the country with the highest incarceration rates in the world. Recidivism rates are also high. It’s becoming apparent that putting inmates to work gardening and farming has health and rehab benefits.

Inmates being released within a few years learn a trade they can use when they get out. They are less likely to return to prison, too.

For all inmates, regardless of sentence, gardening reconnects them to themselves, and teaches them to care for and nurture living things. As a team effort, gardening builds community, which is especially important for those feeling isolated. Because inmates are allowed in the program only if they maintain a good record, they learn responsible decision-making, and how to act, not react.

Studies show gardening creates calmer inmates and less violence. The exercise and fresh air that comes with gardening keeps inmates healthier, reducing the system’s health care bills.

Not just for inmates

What happens to a prison inmate in a gardening program is true for anyone! Study after study shows that gardening has physical, mental health, and educational benefits for the youngest and oldest of us.

garden gardening gloves spade soil

For children, gardening is magical, adding to their sense of awe and wonder about the world. They learn to respect and care for nature. They learn where their food comes from, the cycles of life, and how everything is interconnected. Think of a child watching a bumble bee take nectar from a flower s/he is diligently and enthusiastically growing. There is a larger ecological discussion that accompanies that simple act.

Children learn to cooperate with their parents, too. Community building starts at home. And all kids need more fresh air and exercise than they get these days! Time in the garden will help offset sedentary activities, like tv, gaming, school, and homework.

The elderly

Gardening exercise is good for senior health. The inmate at Litchfield knew that! Working in the greenhouse was very satisfying for her. It simply felt good.

For those with arthritis, it keeps joints from being stiff. Movement helps a lot. Gardening is akin to physical therapy.

The moderate exercise gardening provides is also good for the heart and reduces the risk of stroke. It helps in recovery from heart problems, surgeries, and stroke, too. Vitamin D from the sun reduces heart disease as well as osteoporosis. Physical work is good for bone health.

The rest of us

Gardening has many benefits for healthy, able-bodied people, too. We still learn how to nurture things, make good decisions, and work with others. We get grounded within ourselves and connect to nature.

gardening in fall side yard

It also reduces stress, blood pressure, anxiety and depression. We can work off anger in the garden, too. Didn’t you ever get really physical to take out your anger at something or someone? It’s a good kind of exhaustion when you’re done. Digging, hoeing, pruning, hauling, and raking are wonderful ways to clear your mind and your emotions. The body/mind connection is very strong in the garden.

Soil bacteria help boost the immune system. It’s healthy to play in the dirt!

Spiritual lessons

Personal lessons from plants are evident, too. Learning to live with the cycles of the earth teaches patience and flexibility. We don’t always get what we want, and we have to make adjustments.

Working in the garden is a good way to escape the stress of daily life. It becomes a sanctuary, a peaceful place to regroup.

There is a sense of purpose growing things. A seed is started with the intent of producing a flower or vegetable, the results of which are not instant. As plants continue to grow through the season, we have to be aware of their needs. It’s not something that can be put off until next year or next month, or even tomorrow sometimes. Gardening helps people get outside of themselves this way, too.

Gardens for everyone!

Gardening programs are not just showing up in prisons. This is a fairly new development. Read what the Insight Garden Program is doing.

There is a push to put a garden in every schoolyard. Think what a beautiful and productive garden out on a school grounds could do for the children! No matter what age, kids will be enthralled with the natural world if they have easy access to it.

Nursing homes and retirement centers are installing gardens, too. Aside from the health benefits, the elderly can connect with their peers at a time in their lives when they may feel very alone.

Gardening becomes mainstream

I’m glad to see gardening becoming mainstream. There was a time not too long ago when everyone had a garden. In the abundance experienced after WWII, we forsook them for newly developed frozen food.

No wonder our health has been on the decline over the last 50 or 60 years. Bring on the organic gardens, good food, beautiful flowers, and good physical and mental health!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.