Gardeners find their hobby addictive for diverse reasons, from a practical harvest to socializing with other gardeners in a community plot. We already know gardening can keep you fit. But could it be that gardening could keep your brain fit, alleviating severe mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD?
Horticultural therapy is a practice that has been around since Dr. Benjamin Rush first used it with patients with mental illnesses back in the 1800s. After World War II, the practice of gardening was used as part of the rehabilitation program for hospitalized war veterans, which got people looking at horticulture as therapy in a different light. Since then, therapeutic gardens have been gaining popularity for both veterans and civilians.
One of these therapeutic gardens can be found at the Boulder Crest Retreat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Bluemont, Virginia. Julia Falke, who co-founded the retreat with her husband, Ken, says, “Anyone who has tried their hand at gardening has felt the difference that it can make in their life. We believe in getting veterans into gardening and it is why we built the Wallis Annenberg Heroes Garden, the nation’s second handicapped-accessible walled garden. It provides combat veterans and their families with the chance to engage in a calming and peaceful activity, and focuses them on the subject of healthy eating and nutrition. It’s one small part of what we do, but it makes a significant difference.”
Other programs, some with the help of the USDA, have flourished as well. James McCormick, founder of Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture, devotes his life to encouraging veterans to garden and farm. Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture also publicizes the food products of existing veteran farmers.
Eric Grandon, a veteran of several wars and peace missions who was struggling with PTSD, seemed an unlikely candidate for the farm life when he met McCormick. McCormick convinced him to give sorghum farming a try, and soon Grandon was farming dozens of vegetables, including eight different types of lettuce, rainbow carrots, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, broccoli, kale, spinach, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers and squash. He farmed 1,500 pepper plants, built a greenhouse and a barn, and now raises bees as well. Grandon even received a grant from the USDA to build a high tunnel system for farming lettuce, which he provides to four county school systems.
According to “The benefits of gardening and food growing for health and wellbeing,” the proven mental health benefits of gardening include: an improved sense of community, reduction of stress and anxiety, an improvement of alertness and cognitive abilities (especially in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease), and help hospice patients manage the stress associated with end of life diseases. Considering that chronic stress is becoming a public health crisis, we could all benefit from a little stress reduction.
“When you watch someone exercise all of their senses, especially touch and smell, you can see their whole demeanor change”, Ken Falke explains. At Boulder Crest Retreat, there are three main ways for veterans and their families to interact with the Heroes Garden, Falke says. “First, it’s a place for reflection and alone time, as well as for meditation workshops. There are also structures horticultural therapy programs, and then the 120-foot long back third of the garden has fruit and vegetable beds that feed the families staying in the main lodge. It’s for rest and reconnection.” Falke, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, believes that gardening helps with PTSD recovery because traditional therapy is typically in an “uptight environment, like an office or hospital. The garden gets people into nature and into a more relaxed, safe setting.”
For veterans like Grandon, working with the land has even brought him into contact with other veterans who understand his experiences, and has grown his community connections and social outlets. Grandon sells his farm’s bountiful products at a local farmers market.
Every year, there are more studies coming out with more evidence of the benefits of being in nature to our mental health, and a study in 2013 even found that taking a walk in nature reduced depression in 71 percent of participants, so it’s no surprise that getting your hands dirty in a garden can be a powerful experience.
But what if you don’t know the first thing about gardening? Or, what if you live in a city with no yard or little access to a garden?
Whether it’s because of the farm-to-table trend, or more people are realizing the benefits of gardening, community gardens are popping up in cities and towns all across the United States. In urban areas, these gardens are often created from abandoned, vacant lots. Some are collective gardens, with the whole community working together to share the upkeep responsibilities, while others are individual garden plots.
With limited space in an apartment with just a patio (or no outdoor space at all), the idea is to maximize what you do have. You might have space for a raised bed, or you may have to consider what you can grow vertically. Before planting any seeds, consider the amount of sunlight and water required, as well as the ideal growing season for specific plants for your geographic region. In small spaces, draw a map, make a plan for planting, and keep records of what works and what doesn’t work. Gardeners.com is a great resource for planning and planting a small garden. At the very least, potted plants can bring a little bit of nature into your living space, even if it’s just herbs or flowers.
The point is, no matter how you do it, gardening is worth the effort. Though if you ask Julia or Ken Falke, it’s more relaxing than it is work. “The Retreat utilizes a range of everyday family activities, including gardening, cooking well-balanced meals, hiking, kayaking, as well as age-old and proven warrior practices like labyrinths and meditation,” adds Falke. “This enables combat veterans to make peace with their past, live in the present, and begin planning for a great future – full of passion, purpose and service – here at home.”
Abbie Mood lives just outside Denver, Colorado and can usually be found running around outside, writing, or planning her next adventure. She is a freelance writer and life coach who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues, food culture, and the human experience through her writing. You can find out more about her at abbiemood.com or her blog.
Photos by Boulder Crest Retreat, Nazareth College CC BY and the U.S. Department of Agriculture CC BY