Healing Through Hobbies: Gardening

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the
assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
– Rachel Carson

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s Spring in Minnesota. That time of year when greenhouses pop up in the parking lots of local grocery stores and folks throughout the state hope for NO. MORE. SNOW! (But deep down, we can all recall early May snowfalls).

For some of you, Spring signals gardening: when longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures lead to seed sowing, soil preparation, and those tiny initial green sprouts of flowers, vegetables, tree buds, and yes, even weeds.

Aahhhh, gardening: a hobby that offers physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being to those that participate. Not a green thumb? No worries! Everyone can enjoy the benefits of gardening through active or passive participation in it. What’s the difference? Continue reading.

Angela Girdham, Registered Horticulture Therapist
“Nature has a very positive and physiological impact on us whether we are consciously aware of it or not.”

As a horticulturist, Angela was looking to add meaning to her life when she stumbled upon the Michigan Horticultural Therapist Association. Angela recalls, “It was like a light bulb went off. ‘That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for!’ ” She became a Registered Horticulture Therapist, using plants or plant-related activities to meet the therapy goals of participants.

“There is improved mental and physical health through active (e.g. pulling weeds) and passive (watching hummingbirds flit about your backyard feeder) participation in horticulture and gardening,” begins Angela. “Research has shown that gardening has a host of benefits: lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and improved sleep quality.” She continues, “Gardening involves exercise, reflection, introspection and mindfulness. Vegetable gardening can enrich your diet with plant-based nutrients. With cancer,” Angela finishes, “it’s important to focus on life instead of the illness and gardening is all about life.”

To get started, passive gardening activities can be the easiest. Angela recommends sensory stimulation for beginners. “Use herbs to make and enjoy tea. Arrange cut flowers in a vase and delight in walking into the room and seeing the flower arrangement.” These can lead to active gardening activities. “A pack of seeds is just 25 cents at the dollar store,” Angela marvels. “Gardening and Horticulture Therapy don’t require a huge investment – ever – for the benefits to be felt.”

Angela also reminds us that “family members, friends, and support partners need respite and healing as well. Sometimes they need a break, and a garden can really provide that.”

Next time you want to bring gardening and healing to a caregiver or someone going through an illness like cancer, Angela suggests “bringing in fresh herbs to make a tea that you share together, bringing fresh cut flowers to arrange together, walking through botanical gardens together, or having a conversation while surrounded by plants or outside in nature.”

Collen’s Story
“I used to balk at weeding my garden. Now I enjoy everything about gardening.”

Colleen and her husband have always enjoyed gardening together: planting trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables in their yard. When Colleen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, her chemotherapy began at the start of spring, with treatments and radiation lasting throughout the growing season. During that time, for Colleen, “Gardening wasn’t new, it was different.”

“I would work during the day, then go to chemo or radiation. I’d go home and weed the garden, mow the lawn, sit on a chair in my garden admiring the different views, or breathe in the plants and smells around me.” For Colleen, “A large part of my healing was just appreciating everything in my garden.”

It’s been two growing seasons since her diagnosis, and Colleen sees her garden differently. “I look at the plants differently, notice more colors, and enjoy the birds and butterflies,” she begins. “I go out in my garden now and think, ‘Wow, there’s life – new life – in the garden.’ ” This year, Colleen is planning to add a labyrinth, native species that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and sanctuary spaces to create a healing garden. “Gardening is a priority,” Colleen states. “I make time to garden or sit outside or walk around and enjoy my gardens.”

For someone who is thinking about starting their own garden, Colleen recommends “considering what you are looking for: a color, to attract certain wildlife, native plants, etc. Then start small, with a pot or a small area.”

Lisa’s Story
“Gardening helped me have a better state of mind.”

For Lisa, gardening had been a way to stay connected to her late grandmother, who taught her how to vegetable garden. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It scared me immensely,” Lisa admits. “After that, I’ve learned to appreciate things in life – it’s too bad that it took breast cancer to make that happen, but it did.”

This means that Lisa has embraced everything about gardening, “the smells, the sounds—everything,” she says emphatically. “Gardening allowed me to not have to think about, ‘I have treatment tomorrow,’ or ‘I have surgery next week.’ I really learned to be in the moment with gardening.”

When she was diagnosed, “I needed something to blame,” Lisa admits. “So I went with something I could control—food and where it comes from. Everything I put in my garden and grow is organic. It makes me feel better because I know that what I am growing is healthy.”

For a gardening novice, Lisa recommends starting small, with a raised bed or in pots. “A pot with a tomato and lettuces is great: lettuce is an early spring plant, so it is done growing when the tomato starts to get big.”

Ready to embrace a new hobby? Start gardening/horticulture today by taking a walk with a friend where you are surrounded by green, living things. Buy a small bouquet of flowers at the store and revel in the simple act of inhaling their scent as you put each stem in the vase. Grab some fresh mint where you shop and enjoy mint tea that you make yourself. Then, let the healing and health benefits begin!

Firefly is incredibly grateful to Colleen and Lisa for sharing their hobby, their gardens, and their stories of healing with us. Thank you to Angela for sharing Horticulture Therapy and the active and passive elements of gardening and it’s benefits (For more information on Horticulture Therapy, visit the American Horticulture Therapy Association website).

Other Healing Through Hobbies Blogs in this series:


Written by Amy Tix, breast cancer survivor and Firefly staffer who enjoys passive gardening (hiking in the state parks and watching butterflies flit about) as much as active gardening (looking forward to harvesting fresh veggies from my backyard garden in the growing season to come).

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