BioTrends 2011: The Human Condition; This Is Your Brain on ... Gardening

Home > Opinion > BioTrends 2011 > BioTrends 2011: The Human Condition; This Is Your Brain on ... Gardening

November 2, 2010

In the past, when I read that someone gets their exercise by gardening, my first thought was "Gardening? What a wimp!" Age has had a mellowing effect on that mindset. This is also a kind of counterpoint to my earlier post "Multi-tasking and Always On."

According to "Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression" posted today (November 2, 2010), you can increase your serotonin levels through contact with soil and a soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae. This "happy chemical" (so named by the author, Robyn Francis) is a natural anti-depressant that also strengthens the immune system.

Studies have shown a number of unexpected groups that particularly benefit from gardening: children, prison inmates, elderly people and the disabled. I would add the "fiscally challenged" as well.


Gardening nourishes the brain along with the body (exercise as well as food, if you grow vegetables and fruit). The Royal Horticultural Society's 57-page study "Impact of School Gardening on Learning" shows that gardening helped children "acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential…"

The Society's 16-page "Gardening in Schools" identifies the "3 R's" in which children's lives are radically provided; they become: Ready to learn; Resilient; Responsible."

Low-risk offenders who are accepted by the Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff's garden program report a calming effect: …"this garden calms me. It’s meditation. It helps me take a moment to think before I react.” Remarkably, in the 17 years since the garden program launched, not a single piece of shears, pruners, knives and other equipment has gone missing.

The inmate gardeners graduate from a 10-week course run by the University of Illinois Extension with a master gardener certificate. So far, 450 inmates have participated in the near self-sufficiency program (originally donated to food pantries, the harvest is now growing produce to sell to restaurants). The recidivism rate for the program graduates is only 13.8%, compared with the more than half of all released inmates who return to jail. See "Inmates' Garden Supplies Top Chicago Restaurants."

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are more than 7.3 million people in the U.S. on probation, in jail or prison or on parole at the end of 2008. Only 26 or so inmates have gone through the program each year. What's wrong with this picture? Surely this is evidence of the lasting benefits of a person's brain on gardening. Are there any copycat sheriffs, university extension directors, restaurateurs out there?

The video Therapeutic Gardening Helps Residents with Dementia shows clearly how gardening helps the elderly by improving focus; these people are also happier  when they are able to do in residence care some of what they were accustomed to doing at home.

In "When Treatment Involves Dirty Fingernails," The Wall Street Journal reports a "growing number of health-care facilities…are embracing 'horticultural therapy' programs." For the sake of the 4.3% of the population expected by the US Administration on Aging to be over the age of 85 by 2050 (up from 1.9% in 2010), I hope so.

How do you plan and create a garden for people with dimentia? See "Alzheimer's Garden Plan."

Gardening is a way of helping to cope in tough economic times, as I noted in the "Will Solar White House --> More Eco-Friendly US Buildings?" article in the Eco-Smart/Going Green section of these predictions.

It seems to me that saving money when you're struggling to make ends meet should also help increase your serotonin levels. The economists tell us the recession's been over for awhile, but that doesn't mean it's over for everyone. Check out "Poverty Gardening. How to Survive the Recession with a Home Garden."

Category: Biotrends 2011
Filed under: Aging; Disability; Gardening; Green; Poverty; Social Justice