Getting into your garden and growing your own can welly boot out your stress – and might just save you a trip to the doctor

I’ve always been convinced gardening has magical powers when it comes to health and wellbeing. And, let’s face it, there’s never been a better time to pack your troubles into a wheelbarrow and hurl them onto the compost heap! But is that a metaphor too far?

Maybe not.

Chances are when you’re feeling dizzied by the work/life roundabout, you’ll head to the treadmill or pop a pill from the pharmacy. But what if your plot could become your very own therapy room?

The allotment has always been a lifeline for me. And I don’t use this word lightly. Following post-natal depression, I used the allotment as a natural supplement to my counselling sessions.

Later on, when I developed chronic pain due to a complication of illnesses and nerve damage, it became the place I went to calm my mind and body. During the Covid-19 crisis, my veg plot has become a haven and retreat away from the news headlines and restrictions. (In fact, grow your own and gardening has had such a powerful impact on my mental and physical health, I’ve written a book about it!)

The evidence suggests I am not alone.

Allotments aren’t some middle class playground – they offer people from all walks of life an affordable way to access green space and a way to connect with nature and healthy food. Many people find the simple act of hoeing, digging or growing a vegetable from seed can have profound effects on their health – both physically and mentally. Allotments (and gardens) give you access to fresh air and physcial activity. They also provide buckets of fresh food – which has never been more important during times of food shortage and food poverty.

In fact, recent research suggests a dose of dirt might just be the remedy to our overloaded lifestyles. Simple exposure to green spaces and plants have been show to have huge benefits for stress levels and mood. So, rather than reaching for the quick fixes, should we be getting gardening on prescription?

Green goodness

Simply looking at a green view can help reduce blood pressure and tension. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a green hedge or a balcony veg patch. Step out into the garden and the benefits are multiplied. Exposure to sunlight, and its natural vitamin D injection in the summer, can boost the brain and change our mood further.

“Being in a pleasant, natural environment is effective in helping sensory simulation,” says psychologist and hypnotherapist Jivan Dempsey. “Serotonin levels in our brains increase with oxygen inhalation and this promotes happiness and wellbeing.”

Get your gloves on and start turning compost, digging or pruning and you’ve got yourself a good workout too. Although it’s lower intensity, we’re much more likely to spend half a day gardening than working out on the cross trainer. Even if you’re not green fingered, taking in the scents and smells and feeling the cool grass under your feet has got to beat the solitude of the treadmill.

Allotment Alice on her Northampton allotment plot

A recent report by The Kings Fund found gardening could have wider implications for our mental health. And not just for those suffering from pre-existing depression and anxiety. It’s a fact that gardening helps lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

GYO-ers have long advocated that freshly dug soil can provide a unique connection with nature and calm. Now an early study from the University of Bristol has hypothesized that the ‘friendly’ bacteria in soil might improve our mood by stimulating happy hormones. Playing in the dirt is good for your soul (and your soil).

Salad days

“Nurturing plants and seeing them grow into fruit and veg brings a tremendous sense of purpose, achievement and satisfaction. This in turn boosts confidence and self-esteem,” says Mark Lang from the gardening-for-health charity Thrive. The charity uses gardenning to improve the health and wellbeing of people with physical and mental disabilities, long-term ill-health or those who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable. “Taking something from seed to plate is enormously satisfying but also fun and inclusive – all the family can take part.”

Indeed, it seems gardening becomes even more beneficial when it’s done together, with the social interaction of garden projects shown to delay the symptoms of dementia and other illnesses. “Research suggests that people with depression tend to benefit the most, showing improved interaction, task completion and participation and responding well to positive feedback,” adds Dempsey.

It is this ‘social and therapeutic horticulture’ that Thrive and other gardening charities believe is so valuable to health and wellbeing. Indeed, many gardening proponents are calling on GPs to prescribe ‘garden time’ on the NHS in a bid to ease the pressure on its services.

“Horticultural therapy looks to provide meaning and belonging by helping us feel part of a natural eco-system and nurture that inter-dependency,” says Dempsey. “Nature itself becomes the ‘therapist’ as it teaches the lessons of connection, acceptance and mindfulness as a metaphor for change and self-awareness.”

Therapy garden

Keen allotmenteer Annabelle Padwick is passionate about passing on the benefits of gardening and sharing how it has personally brought her back from the brink. In 2019, she launched the National Growing for Wellbeing Week, which runs every June.

When Annabelle was 21 she developed labyrinthitis, which led to crippling anxiety. “I woke up to my world spinning,” she says. “I couldn’t walk in a straight line, I was bouncing off walls and crawling on the floor to get anywhere. My anxiety became so bad I couldn’t leave the house.”

After trying group therapy Annabelle still felt very anxious – but then she began growing vegetables on her doorstep and everything changed.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at first, but it felt like magic!” she says. “I grew carrots and tomatoes in containers – even a marrow – and I couldn’t believe these tiny seeds that looked like nothing could, with a bit of care grow into big, beautiful foods. It made me realise with a bit of focus, I could transform my life in the same way.”

Six months later and Annabelle got her first allotment plot and it was here, she says, that she found a sense of calm among the chaos in a way that talking therapy had never managed.

Now she is campaigning for gardening to become a UK-wide prescribed therapy for people struggling with loneliness and mental and physical ill health. Annabelle says she wants to let as many people as possible know about this fantastic natural ‘treatment’. Via her Life at No 27 organisation, she will be offering allotment plots to vulnerable people via GP referrals.

“My allotment became my haven and I want other people to experience that, especially those who have never thought about growing their own before,” she says. “With so many signs of positive things around you: seeds growing, plants flowering, vegetables ripening, I’ve proved it can quickly help you recover from ill health. It makes you realise there’s a bright future ahead.”

Mark Lang says it’s been heartening to see this kind of ‘social prescribing’ already becoming part of the NHS’s long-term plans.

“This will enable doctors, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services such as horticulture,” he says. “But we’re currently a long way short of realising gardening’s full potential and referrals are sadly lacking as funding is not flowing through to the service providers. If this is not addressed, a big opportunity to take a holistic approach to patient care will be missed.”

Like this? Dig into my five feel-good gardening activities