Arboretum News

Garden Therapy

Gardening can be the connection that tethers us to nature and one another in a way we sorely need right now.

COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is open in a limited capacity. Find updates and information here.

A member of the horticulture staff at work in Arboretum gardens. Note: This photo is from 2015. All Arboretum staff are currently wearing face masks while working as a COVID-19 precaution. Photo by Lester Hughes-Seamans.

By Jean Larson, manager of the Nature-Based Therapeutic Services Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Author’s note: I originally wrote this blog before the tragedies of George Floyd or Christian Cooper. Sadly, I am reminded how white privilege is not just about the physical body, but also about the physical space. Therefore I would like to state clearly that nature is for all of us to share, regardless of racial, ethnic, sexual or economic status.  All humans are entitled and have the right to spend time in rich, green natural spaces.  Now on to the blog post.

Gardeners know instinctively gardening is good for human health and well being. Scientifically, we know it makes you feel good because the vitamin D produced with sunlight boosts serotonin. Endorphins and dopamine increase with exercise. Exposure to natural beauty stimulates our reward pathways in similar ways to music and romantic love. And the scents of flower plants (like roses and lavender) are known to reduce adrenaline and increase serotonin.

Arboretum staff collecting daffodils for cut flower displays in 2009. Note: All Arboretum staff are currently wearing face masks while working as a COVID-19 precaution. Photo by Christopher Hall.

A recent study from Princeton University tracked 370 Minneapolis-St. Paul residents’ emotional well-being through common activities like gardening, walking, biking, shopping, and eating out. Researchers found that a third of people do gardening at home for an average of 90 minutes a week. Those who identified as gardeners report high levels of happiness and meaningfulness, especially for vegetable gardening. Female and low-income gardeners reported advanced levels of emotional well being. While the solo gardeners were just as happy as those gardening with others.

However, statistics can only go so far in accounting for the essential goodness planting a garden can bring.  There is no amount of research necessary for a gardener to understand the healing benefits of gardening, and no amount of experience that teaches us how each seed sown is a time capsule of hope.  This knowledge is innate and a part of our DNA.

Landscape gardener Richard DeVries works on a woodland restoration project in 2019. Note: All Arboretum staff are currently wearing face masks while working as a COVID-19 precaution. Photo by Chris McNamara.

COVID-19, with all its fears and uncertainties, has brought with it a clarity regarding our fundamental need for a relationship with the natural world.  Gardening can be the connection that tethers us to nature and one another in a way we sorely need right now. Gardening is the training ground to kindness, compassion and empathy. As we care for plants, we are taking care of other beings, whether that is a neighbor, a child, a honeybee or tending to a row of sweet peas. 

As we continue to move forward into this “new normal,” we’ll need to safely build opportunities for relief from quarantine fatigue. For that, dear friends, my heartfelt suggestion is to give yourself time in the garden. If you do, there is an excellent possibility you’ll not only feel restored — you’ll reignite an ancient connection to the earth, others and yourself.

2 comments on “Garden Therapy

  1. gloria smith

    I thank you for speaking to the choice we have to be with nature especially in the garden. Staying in the flow with the garden rather than making demands of the plants allows the healing, peace and tranquility and synchronicity to thrive.Pleas identify the plant at the beginning of the blog…reminds me of gentian.

    • Thanks, Gloria! The plant with purple blooms at the top of the blog is Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii). Arboretum director of operations Alan Branhagen says it’s a bulb native to the Pacific Northwest that does beautifully here.

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