How are we going, fronds? As we emerge from winter into the warm sunlight and longer days of spring, we can’t help but pause a moment to look back and reflect on the rollercoaster of a year that’s been so far. It’s certainly not been an easy ride.
One way that many Aussies have been adjusting to the new normal has been investing time, effort and love into their indoor and outdoor jungles. The past few months have seen gardening-related internet searches jump through the (greenhouse) roof, and spending data shows that we’re redirecting some of that saved-up holiday cashola to gardening goodies.
And it’s not hard to understand why. Those who have stepped up their gardening game during COVID – or perhaps even picked it up for the first time – will have realised by now that not only is it a super-satisfying way to fill in spare time or hone a new skill, but living a life in green does wonders for your mental health.
As the seasons change and we move into peak-growing season, it’s literally the best time of the year to re-establish those gardening routines, especially if they’ve dropped off a little over winter.
So, why exactly is gardening so good for our minds? We sat down this week to have a chat with Greener Spaces Better Places lead researcher Dr Dominique Hes to find out more.
Let’s be honest – COVID can be stressful
If you’ve been feeling like COVID has been a strain on your mental health, rest assured that you’re not alone. Studies have found that many Aussies have been having a tricky time, with alcohol consumption on the rise and eating and exercising habits changing significantly – with one study finding 35% of the general population report an increase in food bingeing, while exercise levels have dropped by over 40%.
Mental health researchers Black Dog Institute pointed out in this recent report that disease outbreaks commonly result in heightened anxiety and panic, depression, anger, confusion and uncertainty, and financial stress, with similar pandemics in the past provoking high levels of stress and anxiety for between 25% to 33% of people. For some of us, these feelings are heightened – particularly for those who:
- have pre-existing anxiety disorders or mental health issues
- are health care workers
- are in quarantine
- are unemployed or casual workers
If this sounds like you or someone you’re close to, keep an extra eye out on how you, or they are going. Of course, if you or someone around you is experiencing acute mental distress, a medical professional or mental health specialist should be a first port of call.
The power of plants
If you’re looking for ways to manage your mental health better at home, however, then getting a big dose of green is an excellent place to start. Why? Because as Dr. Dominique explained to us, humans have an in-built need to be connected with nature (the fancy word for this is “biophilia”).
According to Dr Dominique, having plants at home can have a range of fascinating personal benefits – including increased productivity, stress relief, and boosted creativity and intuition, just to name a few.
Chatting with Body and Soul recently, she noted that, “…gardening calms the emotional side of the brain.
Research shows that gardening, time in nature and being around plants reduces stress, just as active mindfulness can.
“Both activities work on the amygdala, which is the emotional switchboard of the brain. When you are gardening you are observing what is happening now – you are in the present – and this is a key technique of mindfulness.”
In the context of COVID, maintaining this mindfulness is particularly important – especially if you have a range of stressors you’re juggling (job problems, working from home stress, home-schooling, separation from your loved ones etc). By hanging around leafy fronds, you’re relaxing those parts of the mind that are connected to nature, meaning you’re in a better position to deal with those COVID-induced worries.
“It’s like dealing with a tantrum of your four year old when you have had a good night’s sleep, compared to when you have been up all night,” Dr Dominique explains.
Toni Salter, Greener Spaces Better Places collaborator and horticultural therapist, agrees – and notes that mindfulness benefits can arise from passive gardening as much as roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-stuck-in type gardening, with activities like potting seedlings, sowing seeds or simply digging in the dirt “providing instant gratification, and distraction from feelings of anxiety…it helps to ‘stay in the moment’ and appreciate the process.”
Ready? Let’s get diggin’
For Dr. Dominique, connecting with nature has literally meant digging in the dirt. “One of the best things I’ve done with my daughter is plant potatoes – and make chips out of them!”
Now that spring has well and truly sprung, it’s the best time of the year to pick up a trowel and establish yourself a thriving indoor or outdoor jungle. No matter what your indoor or outdoor situation is, there’s lush options available for all homes and all levels of green thumbs – and all of them are perfect for lifting your mood!
- For those keen to sample the fruits of their labour: A kitchen windowsill veggie garden is the perfect place to cultivate herbs, micro-greens and establish seedling veggies from seeds. Head here for our full guide on growing a windowsill garden.
- For those with a bit of backyard space: If you’ve grown sourdough starter during COVID, then you’ll definitely find growing an outdoor veggie garden extremely satisfying!
- For those who’s kids have finished all the puzzles: Get those creative juices flowing, and encourage your kids to help you decorate your plants’ pots. From macrame to pot painting, there is a creative activity for everyone.
- For those in the middle of a spring clean: take the opportunity of those sparkly, shiny shelves by arranging a plant shelf. Hanging plants like devil’s ivy, climbing philodendron or mistletoe cactus work perfectly.
Ready, set, grow! Give your nearest local plant nursery a call and see what they’re recommending this spring.
If you are experiencing mental distress and want to talk to someone, please reach out to an organisation like Beyond Blue or Headspace – both have big national networks of people ready to have a chat.