Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

By Leah Harris

In honor of Earth Day this April 23, we’re taking a closer look at the mental health benefits of digging in the dirt. The microbes contained in soil have been found to have antidepressant and stress-relieving properties. And a growing body of research supports gardening as a vital personal and community wellness activity. 

A survey report conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, “Gardening during COVID-19: experiences from gardeners around the world,” documents the positive role gardening plays in mental and physical health, especially during tough times. Survey respondents noted that gardening helped reduce their stress and anxiety, and provided a way to be in a safe community connection with others. Gardeners reported a greater sense of control that comes with food production, and a desire to help improve food security locally.

The survey’s findings support investing in gardens and increasing access to community gardening as public health needs. In the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and other places, some health care providers have begun to “prescribe” time spent in community gardens for emotional distress, psychological trauma, and a range of other conditions. While health care providers in the U.S. may not be prescribing gardening yet, there are a number of free or low-cost local ways to connect with plant therapy, gardening, and community. 

A local plant therapy resource is the Oakland plant shop Planterday, a “mission-driven plant shop dedicated to destigmatizing mental health and promoting mental health resources.” 

Planterday’s co-founder, Matt Day, speaks openly about how gardening helped him cope with the trauma of his mother’s death. Day writes, “The only solace I found was in gardening when my partner Yumi and I landscaped our yard and grew flowers and vegetables. Digging my hands into the soil and growing our garden was therapeutic.” Planterday grew out of the co-founders’ desire to help spread the benefits of plant therapy to others. As an official sponsor, the shop donates a portion of all proceeds to Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. 

Some other ways to get access to the benefits of gardening are to find a local gardening meetup group, and volunteer with the City of Oakland Community Gardening program (monthly volunteer events take place on Saturdays). Or check out a local Earth Day cleanup event.

We wish you a happy and meaningful Earth Day, and enjoyment of the many gifts of working and playing the dirt, all year round.

Resources for further exploration:

Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.