A garden connects us with Nature to heal and nourish our health and wellbeing on many levels. With everyday stresses, a garden not only helps renew our physical bodies but also gifts us a way to nurture our mental, emotional, and spiritual health too.
I grew up in a garden. As a baby, my mother put me in a bassinet almost daily under the shady orange tree amongst the nasturtium flowers; a deeply sensory experience with the sounds of birds and bees buzzing, sweetly perfumed flowers, and soothing breezes. As I grew, I was encouraged to play in the garden, get dirty, eat a diet rich in homegrown fruits and vegetables from our backyard dedicated to food production, and collect eggs from our chickens. Dad encouraged me to rake out manure from their coop and help add fallen leaves to his mountainous compost bays. I climbed our mulberry and plum trees to pick fruit and helped mum make jam. Our backyard was my childhood playground with our swing hanging from the persimmon tree. The garden was filled with food, flowers, and wildlife—a place to escape, explore and play. I didn’t value the health benefits of this opportunity as a child, but I do now.
Health Benefits of Gardening
A review of over 50 studies confirmed interacting with Nature can offer positive effects on health and wellbeing. (1) One study verified that ‘those who are involved in gardening find life more satisfying and feel they have more positive things happening in their lives than those who are not.’ (2)
A growing body of scientific literature provides significant evidence for beneficial health outcomes for not only spending time in a garden but specifically growing food at home and in our communities.
Getting outdoors in the fresh air helps oxygenate our bodies and gives us a break from indoor air pollution. Physical exercise with gardening tasks like digging, weeding, and raking burns calories, contributing to healthy weight management. Eating fruits, vegetables, and herbs we grow also help build the immune system, preventing illness.
Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are plant-based compounds that help protect a plant’s ‘immune system’ against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Phytonutrients not only give many foods their aroma and diverse colors but may play a role in human disease prevention and treatment. Eating a rainbow of color on our plate, especially organically homegrown foods, is another way a garden can contribute to our health.
A 2015 study concluded walking barefoot, ‘earthing’ or grounding ourselves can help reduce common health conditions, including pain, inflammation, and stress. (3) In 2007, a neuroscientist discovered that strains of harmless soil-borne Mycobacterium vaccae dramatically stimulated the human immune system and exposure to soil bacteria can contribute to developing strong immunity. (4)
Emotional and Mental Wellbeing
Gardens provide unlimited sensory experiences. The fragrance of beautiful flowers or scented foliage; the taste of a homegrown ripe, juicy tomato; listening to birds singing or bees buzzing; plant textures that are enjoyable to touch, like soft Lamb’s Ears leaves; and of course, the visual beauty we can enjoy. Harvesting and savoring the flavor of homegrown foods is one of the most satisfying rewards of growing an edible garden.
The therapeutic benefits of gardening can also help us cope with the daily pressures of life. With many of us spending more time at home than ever before, our gardens have also become sanctuaries, a place to retreat from the world to find peace of mind. Nature is a powerful healer and self-care is more important than ever. A garden acts as a refuge, a space to relax and reflect, and a soothing tonic for the soul.
When we spend time observing plants or insects and engaging in simple gardening tasks, we live in the moment, and daily cares are put aside. We become immersed in the outside world. Our gardens allow us to unwind mentally, enjoy sensory stimulation, and use our brains creatively to design, plan, create, and nurture plants. Growing food is immensely satisfying and gives us a sense of purpose and hopeful anticipation of a successful harvest. Journalling and planning are also helpful activities that are part of growing a wellness garden. Keeping our brain active has been found to help protect against degenerative diseases like dementia. Even challenges like pests or weather teach us to problem-solve and upskill our knowledge, often connecting socially with other gardeners to find solutions.
Mindful breathing helps us slow down and spend time at nature’s pace in the garden as an effective antidote to stress. Even a tiny balcony with a well-placed chair surrounded by plants can make a difference. Growing plants with flowers in your favorite colors can incorporate more joy in your garden. Bring the outdoors in; cut flowers, herbs or foliage to arrange in a vase, add to a meal, or enjoy in a herbal tea.
Swedish research (Stigsdotter and Grahn, 2004; Stigsdotter, 2005) found that people who had access to a garden had significantly fewer stress occasions per year. They found those living in apartments without a balcony or outdoor area had more stress annually than those with a patio or small garden. Those who had the least stress were people with a large leafy garden, and the more frequently people spent time there, the less stress they suffered. American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) had the right idea when he said: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.”
Plants for a Wellness Garden
Many people I work with are recovering from health issues and want to grow plants that heal and support their wellness journey. One of the most empowering ways we can take care of ourselves to prevent illness and treat everyday ailments is to use some of our culinary herbs for their medicinal value. There are so many plants you can grow for a healing garden to support your health and wellbeing. These are a few of my favorite easy-to-grow herbs that perform multiple functions and are a great place to start in pots.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
This pretty lemon-flavored and scented herb is top of the list. It has been used widely for its natural antidepressant properties, helping relieve stress and anxiety, and uplift the spirits. It’s incredibly fast-acting. I’ve found the easiest way to get the benefits from this herb is to pick a few fresh leaves and make a tea, brewed for a few minutes. Lemon balm helps improve sleep and can relieve indigestion; drink it hot or chilled as a refreshing beverage. This perennial herb prefers moist, well-drained compost-rich soil in sun or partial shade. The pretty flowers are also edible.
Mint (Mentha sp.)
Mint is another fragrant, attractive, perennial and moisture-loving herb for a large pot. It’s not only refreshing to use in salads, drinks, and meals but contains powerful antioxidants, helpful for building a strong immune system. Because mint leaves have anesthetic, antiviral, and antiseptic compounds, it’s beneficial for all sorts of ailments like sore throats and as a natural breath freshener. Mint comes in many flavors, including spearmint, peppermint, and my favorite, chocolate mint. One to tempt the tastebuds. Picking fresh leaves just before using and chopping or bruising them releases the volatile essential oils. Mint enjoys the same growing conditions as lemon balm.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
The dried flowers from this pretty annual herb have been used for centuries to make a delicious herbal tea. Chamomile has a gentle calming sedative effect that can improve mood, aid sleep, relaxation, stress, nausea and anxiety. This herb offers a wide range of health benefits including antibiotic, pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-fungal and antiseptic properties. Chamomile grows best in well-drained, compost-rich soil in a sunny location to encourage flowering.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
This annual herb has so many uses that I am never without it in our home pharmacy garden. Nasturtiums are not fussy whether they live in the sun or shade but will flower profusely in a sunny, moist location. While many gardeners grow this plant for its stunning flowers and intoxicating fragrance which lift the spirit, the nasturtium is far more than just a pretty face to put in a vase! The highest value is in the leaves, which contain potent antibiotic properties, backed by considerable scientific research. Nasturtiums contain tromalyt, a fast-acting antibiotic compound that helps boost the immune system in just an hour without the usual side-effects on gut flora. Leaves, seeds, and flowers are eaten raw and are high in vitamin C and B vitamins, also supporting immune health. At the start of a cold, flu or respiratory ailment, we always eat three leaves several times a day, and it quickly abates. Powerful plant medicine indeed and another fantastic addition to your wellness garden.
Growing medicinal plants like herbs to use for simple remedies is a sustainable and economical way to support health. Plants can be harvested just before you need them when they are freshest. Being able to step out onto your balcony or wander in the garden to pick herbs for a tea and minutes later cure an ailment is incredibly empowering. Learning to take care of ourselves by growing a wellness garden, even a small one, can help us relieve stress, find peace with a rewarding hobby, and ultimately improve our health and wellbeing.
* Consult your health care provider to determine if any medications could interact with herbs you intend to use.