Friday, July 19, 2024

Digging In: The Therapeutic Benefits of Playing in the Dirt

HomeLifestyleDigging In: The Therapeutic Benefits of Playing in the Dirt

There’s something deeply satisfying about digging your fingers into the dirt, yanking out a stubborn weed and filling the soil with the stuff that ultimately will become a colorful bloom or a tasty vegetable. Author Jenny Uglow, whose books include A Little History of British Gardening, said it best: “We might think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us.”

With spring approaching, it’s a great time to get outside and soak up the varied benefits of gardening.

Gardening counts as exercise. Digging, planting, weeding and watering all involve various muscle groups, enhancing flexibility, building muscle and boosting cardiovascular health. Plus, all that sunlight kicks up the body’s production of vitamin D, essential for bone health and immune function.

Mentally, gardening serves as a therapeutic outlet. The rhythmic flow of gardening tasks, coupled with being surrounded by nature, fosters a sense of tranquility and mindfulness. One Dutch study on cortisol, a natural steroid that aids in the body’s stress response, found that gardening after a stressful event offers greater stress relief than reading. Research also shows that skin exposure to certain beneficial bacteria found in soil has antidepressant qualities. 

Gardening offers cognitive stimulation and opportunities for learning and problem-solving, too. Planning and organizing a garden layout, selecting suitable plants and troubleshooting issues like pests or diseases keep the mind sharp and engaged and may help mitigate age-related cognitive decline. One study found it can lead to a 36-percent lower risk of dementia.

Juliet Johnson with a Pitcher plan at the Tropical Plant Expo.
Juliet Johnson with a Pitcher plant at the Tropical Plant Expo.

Juliet Johnson, 65, can attest. She joined the Duval County Master Gardener Program, part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, after moving to Jacksonville from New Jersey. 

“I realized that I am at an age for which women have no template. Our mothers were not nearly as active and vigorous as we are today,” she says. “We are at a vibrant time of life. Our minds are on fire, we’re ready for challenges and we have some time. Gardening allows me the opportunity to work with color, texture and movement and connect with people with shared interests. It is so important to find your people.”

Socially, gardening fosters a sense of community and connection, especially if individuals participate in community gardening projects or clubs. Sharing knowledge, experiences and produce with fellow gardeners creates camaraderie, combating feelings of isolation that can sometimes accompany aging. It’s the benefit that Tonya Ashworth, Extension Agent for the Duval County Master Gardener Program, sees most in her work. 

“More than once, we’ve had volunteers come into the program after a major life change. Some have retired and moved to Florida where they have no friends. Some have lost their spouses,” she says. “Finding a community of people with shared interests gives them comfort.”   

Sow Seeds and Grow Your Circle of Friends

The Garden Club of Jacksonville

Duval County Master Gardener Program

Men’s Garden Club of Jacksonville 

Late Bloomers Garden Club 

Mandarin Garden Club 

Photo Credit: Mike Franqui (top)

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