Admit it. We could all use a little mental health boost right now. Forced isolation, uncertain finances, disrupted routines, increased responsibility of homeschooling with no childcare. It’s enough to make even the most optimistic and cheerful among us feel downright gloomy.
The list of remedies that experts recommend to combat this gloom always includes exercise, spending time outside and caring for and nurturing something. And guess what activity checks all of those boxes? Gardening!
As an occupational therapist for Sheppard Pratt, I am passionate about using horticulture as a means to help my patients. Horticulture activities are used in a variety of rehabilitative, recreational and vocational settings. Engaging in gardening meets many goals. People feel good about being outside in the fresh air, which lifts their mood and helps them relax, therefore reducing stress hormones like cortisol. When people are less stressed, it is easier for them to work on and succeed at tasks that require fine motor skills, which in turn improves their self-esteem.
Gardening also improves cognitive functions, such as following directions, organizing a process into steps and problem-solving. These are higher-order thinking tasks and yet people are having so much fun, they hardly even realize how much progress they are making.
If you are a beginner gardener, containers or raised beds are an easy way to start and provide all the space you need to grow a nice variety of herbs, smaller vegetables like cherry tomatoes and plenty of flowers and plants.
Recently Michael Robinson, a member of Sheppard Pratt’s housekeeping team, and I facilitated the creation of container gardens in Sheppard Pratt’s Harry Stack Sullivan Day Hospital’s interior courtyard. Thanks to special grant funding, we were able to purchase containers to position along the flagstone terrace. Together with the patients, we mapped out plots for vegetables, flowers and herbs.
A project like this can be easily replicated at your house.
I also have created a way for my inpatients to engage in horticulture therapy without leaving their rooms. In our unit are two large spider plants, which we’ve dubbed the “Big Mamas.” Each patient decorates a gardening pot, then cuts a section off of a Big Mama, repots it and gets to keep that plant in their room. Maintaining a plant and watching it grow can be a real source of joy and self-esteem for people.
Making your garden grow
Anyone can reap the mental health benefits of gardening. And it can be especially beneficial during this pandemic.
As an OT, I recommend that people put structure in place for themselves during this time of social isolation. Otherwise, the days can blur together, which negatively affects your mood. Gardening counters this. It requires regular maintenance and responsibilities such as regular weeding and watering to help those who need structure and routine stay on task and develop a sense of purpose, while also providing a reward when the garden grows.
But please be patient with yourself and your garden. I have done a lot of experimenting over the years to determine what plants work best for my outdoor space, given its soil makeup and access to sun and shade. And I have determined that I do not like high-maintenance plants. What I truly prefer hearty crops like tomatoes or root vegetables. Plus, I always make sure to border my garden and landscaping with plenty of annuals and perennials for the sheer joy all of that color provides and to attract pollinating insects like bees and butterflies.
It may take you a few seasons to determine the right combination of what grows well in your garden. That’s OK. In addition to those flowers and vegetables, your garden is a harvest of reduced anxiety, elevated self-esteem and improved wellbeing.
Amy Caslow, OTR/L is an occupational therapist in the Adult Inpatient Psychotic Disorders Unit at Sheppard Pratt.