Gardening For Better Mental and Physical Health

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Older lady deadheading roses in her garden

Most gardeners instinctively know the benefits of spending time outside growing things.  The fresh air, exercise, natural beauty and sense of accomplishment they offer are all deeply satisfying to the human psyche.  Gardens also provide wonderful opportunities to build connections between people.  I probably have more conversations with my neighbors while tending the vegetable garden at the front of my house than at any other time and often strangers will stop to chat about what I’m growing.  These qualities highlight how valuable  gardening can be as a therapy and that’s exactly what one inspirational charity uses it for...

Thrive is a national organisation with gardens based in London and Reading in the UK.  The official term for what they do is ‘horticultural therapy’ but they sum it up as ‘using gardening to change lives’  and changing lives is really what they achieve.  Not a quick-fix miracle ‘cure’ but a therapeutic journey for people with physical, emotional or mental disability or illness.  Whether it is rehabilitating a stroke victim, tutoring blind and partially-sighted gardeners or advising on wheelchair accessible gardens, they transform lives one small step at a time. 

It’s not just people with the more obvious disabilities that benefit from the therapeutic qualities of gardening.  Those suffering from depression  or coping with the trauma of Alzheimer’s and dementia regularly find a new hope and purpose at Thrive’s garden projects.  Experiencing the variety of the seasons and the miracle of new growth can help people rediscover meaning in their lives.  Visiting Thrive’s projects helps bring about ‘positive reminiscence’, stimulating the mind and offering opportunities for re-connection with family and friends.  From experiencing nature gardens to growing vegetables in their own raised bed, the people who come to Thrive always leave enriched.  "Really, it’s the process of gardening that helps people" says chief executive Nicola Carruthers, "if you change one life you can affect their friends, their family, their carers."

Thrive highlight five common benefits through gardening:

  • Physical health: As well as good exercise, growing your own food promotes nutritional health and well being – important components in recovery.
  • Psychological health: A sense of purpose and achievement is vital to bring about renewed self-worth.
  • Social benefits: Gardens  are wonderful places to connect with people and Thrive projects are known for the positive community spirit they generate.
  • Gaining skills and qualifications: Those who have difficulty progressing in traditional educational settings can gain practical skills and qualifications in horticulture.
  • Access to the natural environment: The all-round benefits of the outdoors are opened up to people who would otherwise struggle to experience them.
Relaxing in the garden

Of course, there are many other projects around the country, often little known, which use gardening as therapy.  What Thrive does is hold a central national database of these so that they can link people to projects near them.  I particularly like the fact that they put a lot of work into providing resources for those other individuals and groups working in similar settings.  Their Carry On Gardening website and information packs help those who can’t access the established groups.  Together with their national advice line they are fully committed to the wider cause, not just their own projects.

Times journalist, Sally Brampton, says "When I’m gardening the only thing I think about is gardening and I think it’s what physiologists call ‘flow’ – that you become completely absorbed in something that you’re doing and it transcends everything, you just forget everything else."  That sums up so much of the wonder of gardening as a therapy: not only does it help with physical rehabilitation but it brings about renewal of the mind – the ability to rise above circumstances and imagine a brighter future.  And that, as any wise doctor will tell you, is the prerequisite for effective healing.  It’s at the heart of why Thrive is a charity overflowing with stories of changed lives and new hope.

NB. Although Thrive is UK based, there are other organisations around the world promoting similar aims.  For North American readers, the following are worth looking at:

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"The Allotment site were I have two plots, with an area of just over 100 square metres, has a wide cross section of people which include lorry drivers, air port workers, office workers and people like myself who are retired. I can think of at least four people including myself who have had heart attacks including having open heart surgery to having stents fitted, two others have had strokes, the odd one or two with depression, two or three with M E, and the rest with normal health. The site is home to 56 plot holders of differing ages and abilities so we know who have problems and can look out for them, just in case. We all find it helps as I had a heart attack 11 years ago had two stents fitted kept taking the tablets and never looked back, I am now starting my 8th year and have found that it works for me and a lot of others. Gardening for health could be the greatest thing since sliced bread."
Peter on Friday 6 February 2009
"i worked in a Marie Curie Hospice and completed a Horticultural Therapy at Thrive Course and then introduced a programme of gardening with the patients. They all loved this saying they felt much better doing something posative producing living things, and most importantly this made them forget all their aches and pains."
veronica on Saturday 7 February 2009
"Peter and Veronica, Thank you for your comments - both great examples of how gardening has such potential for community healing and health"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 9 February 2009
"As you know Jeremy, my Lottie and my blog are all about my own journey through 'Ecotherapy'. Having chronic depression and acute anxiety, not to mention no self-esteem. This really doesn't seem to work, in combination with medication and other therapies. I was very surprised by the reaction I felt last year when we started, it is not a panacea, but every little helps."
Carrie on Monday 2 March 2009
"Carrie, Don't lose the plot, pardon the pun, stay with it. As I said in my comment of the 6th of Feb it may not work for every one but it could easily work for you. I think Jeremy would like to hear, myself included, how you have got on in say 6 months time, keep a diary to track how you feel and what you have acheived so you can read it at a later stage. I think in 9 months time someone will say did I do that and a little voice will say yes you did."
Peter on Sunday 15 March 2009
"Carrie's blog is at for anyone who would like to read a great commentary of the challenges of gardening on an allotment, good mental health and ecotherapy. I have followed it for a while now and it's well worth a read."
Jeremy Dore on Monday 6 April 2009
"There is now a new scheme called EcoMinds which has funding for environmental projects such as gardening which help people who have experienced mental distress. See for details."
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 28 April 2009
"Hi... firstly ... this website is awesome! I just had to get that in there... so thank you to everyone who contributes, if it weren't for you... newbies like me would really struggle! In November 2011 I had a breakdown, lost everything, suffered major depression and anxiety which led to me becoming a recluse. Recently I have moved into more settled accommodation ... with a garden!!!! Yay! I have always wanted one! The health benefits for me are immense! Fair enough I can order seeds online... but with the help of my carer I go out to buy compost and pots etc. This not only is getting me out into the world ... but I am having conversations with people as they ask my plans. I then have the next benefit... building my self esteem! It's so magical planting a seed (or tucking it into bed as I like to think) then it wakes up and has a good stretch. My initial thoughts were... there is no point in trying they will just die. But as to yet they have all grown! I CAN DO IT! Well grow seedlings at least. Putting together my plastic greenhouse thingy was a physical and mental challenge to say the least. .. but it's up and looks great. My carer suggested it as a reward for doing so well growing the first batch of seedlings :) it looks great and I'm so excited to see my outcomes! I have something to live for... it may sound silly to normal people... but when you have lost everything, sometimes the smaller pleasures in life keep you going. Its all about baby steps. As my peas and beans are doing so well I decided to use the climbing frame at the end of the garden to support them (it was left there by the previous owner) I spent the afternoon out in the sunshine tying net to the frame... stretching bending and reaching. The shape of it is great and I think it will be beautiful when covered in plants! I'm itching to go out there again :) today I plan to dig in some soil improver around the frame, plant some seeds, pot up some hanging baskets with strawberries and start to enjoy life a little more :) Thank you x"
imgrowing on Thursday 11 April 2013
"Await am from Uk. I love gardening even though at 75 I have limited use of my legs,ugh. Everthything is hard work and I end the day tired but happy. I have a beautiful greenhouse to grow tomatoes peppers and aubergines. I have not got a plot of soil but I grow onions carrots etc in large pots. I love flowers and I won a gold award for my front garden last year. I have a rockery,fernery,lawn ,shrubs and trees. I don't know how much longer I can keep up the standard but I will never stop as long asthe sun shines. My idea of ya day out is a visit to a garden centre. Best wishes to all gardeners."
Rose on Saturday 7 May 2016
"I have lived with a couple of mental health diagnosis and physical challenges. I started growing food last year. I have discontinued three psych meds, all opioid pain meds and benzodiazepines, no sleeping pills... I haven't been hospitalized nor have I needed to see my Shrink or primary care physician. I now have four gardens, in the apartment yards of some disabled neighbors. I'm HAPPY. I contribute to my community. I'm healthier. Growing food has changed me. Thanks, Jenn C. Napa, CA, USA"
Jenn Leach on Sunday 3 July 2016
"How many hours of sleep are you meant to have? my daughter is 13 and she is getting 7 hours of sleep, is there a certain amount you are meant to sleep?"
Charli Smith on Thursday 28 November 2019

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