Interestingly, a quick search of the research literature revealed a pretty decent selection of papers. Gardening seems to have a great stress reducing effect – lowering physiological reactions to stress1, being of therapeutic benefit for everyone from children2 to the elderly3. It is also linked to higher self-efficacy and self esteem4. But how does it work? This seems to be a bit more of a mystery, but I’m happy to speculate. One argument is that simply looking at green landscapes is simply inherently soothing (Soylent Green anyone?). I think this is true from hiking trips, but looking at my allotment is NOT viewing a inherently pleasant vista (more of a muddy diorama covered in bravely struggling flora!). I wonder if it is more about the states of mind gardening can produce, and the social connections it brings.
One thing I have noticed is that gardening encourages peaceful reflection. You cannot really do it whilst checking emails or chatting on the phone. It also evokes a state of mindfulness (a focus on the here and now). Try and sow easy-to-blow-away carrot seeds whilst thinking of the argument you had last week will lead to carrots everywhere but in a row. Weeding requires careful focus, and can actually be quite absorbing. This sense of ‘flow’ is much prized and sought after in domains such as exercise.
Gardening also highlights to me the power of psychological framing. One day I can see all the progress I have made, and all the opportunities that remain (a positive framing, leading to a sense of empowerment and better general motivation called psychological challenge). Sometime, the next day will be very different, it all seems to too much: everything is dying, except the blackberries which are competing with the weeds to overrun the place (psychological threat). When you reflect on this you come to realize that the difference in this framing is nothing to do with the allotment (or the world), but how you perceive it. For me at least,this is a powerful insight which, when I can keep it in mind, is very helpful.
I’m also lucky to have got to know some fantastic people in the three seasons we’ve been on the plot. Many have given me advice and a pleasant chat, several have given me useful plants, and I was once given a squash that weighed about the same as my youngest daughter. Having this sense of community (loose and task focused as it may be) is a resource – many studies show having positive social connections (in particular multiple connections) builds resilience to problems, better health outcomes and is generally good for you.
So, mindfulness, being absorbed in the here and now, insights into one’s tendency to see the positive or negative in our environments and social connections. Is that it? Probably not. I think also requires a keen sense of humor: My daughter, just over two and half at the time, cheerfully announced that she had been a ‘great weeder’, and the proudly showed me the pile of half grown vegetables that she had systematically pulled up, deftly avoiding the weeds around them. Apparently a child can remove a significant amount of organic matter in the time it takes a parent to dip into the shed for a spade! Micro-veg featured that week quite a lot.