Why gardening is so good for your mental health

Alice Vincent
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One of the most welcome aspects of gardening’s return to vogue is its mental health benefits. For those who grow things, gardening’s ability to make one feel, well, better, is long-established. An afternoon pottering about with plants is calming in a no-fuss-please sort of way. As the writer Olivia Laing puts it, ‘I’ve never found an activity as soothing or as wholly absorbing. It’s like being immersed in a deep, silent pool.’

Over the past year or so, though, I have frequently been asked about how gardening helps my mental health. It’s a question I often struggle to answer, because to me the two are so entwined: to garden is to take a breath, to recalibrate.

Like many things that feel good, I didn’t so much get hooked on the act of gardening as the way it made me feel. While I’m an innate worrier and restless soul, I’m fortunate never to have been diagnosed with any clinical mental ill health. Still, I retreat to the balcony in the same way one might to a pillow to scream into in times of frustration. When I’m feeling buoyant, a few hours spent pruning and potting only exacerbates that goodness; when I’m crabby and tired, doing something as straightforward and gentle as watering – ideally with a very fine rose on a not-too-heavy can – unleashes the same release as a good shoulder rub.

This might give the impression that my gardening is mostly dilly-dallying around with posies and floral aprons. It’s not. To work the ground is to encounter the unexpected, and with it as much bad as good: vine weevil invasions, rotted roots, forgotten-about seedlings. Even when it’s not your fault – a February wind plays a merry dance with the cold frame, and all of the greens within – it’s easy to tell yourself it is. And when the one thing that’s meant to help winds you up, what then? Well, like most things in life, we push through.

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A few weeks ago I was 10 minutes into a Saturday-afternoon balcony session when I knocked a tray – the only tray – of seedlings off the ledge and on to the plants underneath. Things get bumped around a lot up here; the space is barely 150cm wide, and I am clumsy. I have become adept at dusting down and carrying on. But the seedlings were galling: they’d taken eight weeks to even produce true leaves and I’d sown the whole packet. To see them upended was, frankly, upsetting.

It would have been easier to compost the lot. But that would have been even more of a waste. And so I meticulously pricked out all 25 tiny, not-really-ready-yet seedlings and put them into new pots. It’s a simple, if fiddly, task: you have to unearth the roots and keep them intact without touching the stem – a pencil helps, but I used a pointed plant label.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, the act of pushing soil into pots, firming down, making space for the seedlings and then levering them in, shifted from being an annoyance to a pleasure. Taking something broken and fixing it, no matter how small, is cheering. And on the worst days, there’s always something to be fixed in the garden.

Alice is the author of ‘Rootbound, Rewilding a Life’ (Canongate, £14.99) and you can follow her on Instagram here.

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