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Green Therapy: What Is It and Why You Need It for Your Health

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Green Therapy: What Is It and Why You Need It for Your Health

November 17, 2022

Although green therapy is easy to self-administer, it sometimes takes a prescription to tell people that it’s necessary. Spending time in nature, whether in exercise or relaxation mode, benefits wellbeing—physical and mental, as well as social. And there’s ample medical research to back this up. To wit: Living in an urban neighborhood that has some greenery increases the production of cortisol, which regulates stress. White blood cell production accelerates after time spent in a natural setting. Mindfulness practice, which can be done anywhere, is most effective out of doors…and so on.

Hiking, rowing on a lake, walking the dog in a park—these are all forms of green therapy (also known as nature- or eco-therapy). Gardening brings a more specific interaction with the earth and is prescribed by the National Health Service in the UK. Let’s look at some of the reasons why:

To garden is to live in the moment.

Above: Lessons from birds, a song thrush hunting snails. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

As the late mindfulness guru Thic Nhat Hanh (and founder of Plum Village) noted, mindfulness is feeling alive, and knowing that you feel alive. This is made easier outside, where it is clear that all living beings (such as birds) only ever live in the moment. Once you become attuned to nature, the most fundamental things have a profound logic, starting with breathing. You breathe in what the trees breathe out.

Being outdoors activates your senses.

Herbs for all of the senses (including the sound of insects). Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.
Above: Herbs for all of the senses (including the sound of insects). Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Have you ever really examined a sprig of rosemary, and tasted it raw? It is softer than it looks, textured like crazy paving on the top of each leaf, with felty undersides and stems. Uncooked, it has a surprisingly menthol taste. Taking the time to look, feel, and taste is a form of green therapy along with gardening. Weeding demands a meditative level of concentration.

Growing things connects you to others.

Above: In the walled garden at Sharpham Trust in Devon, a country estate that hosts green therapy retreats. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Loneliness is a key driver in mental health problems, and part of the point of a green therapy prescription is to work outdoors with others. The World Health Organisation defines good health as not just the absence of disease or infirmity but “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” Good health is a complex pattern of interactions, in the way that we, for millennia, were intrinsically connected with our communities, and the natural world.

Growing food is clearly nourishing, but for someone suffering from trauma it is particularly rewarding to bring life to something that then thrives. Sowing, growing and harvesting gives a sense of time and seasonal inevitability, as well as a future.

Soil is an anti-depressant.

Rainbow chard growing in healthy soil on photographer Howard Sooley&#8\2\17;s allotment. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.
Above: Rainbow chard growing in healthy soil on photographer Howard Sooley’s allotment. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.

It sounds too good to be true but getting dirt under the fingernails, and even breathing in the air around soil when gardening, triggers serotonin production in the brain, improving mood and cognitive function. Healthy soil is alive with Mycobacterium vaccae, which interact positively with human gut bacteria. Playing with dirt as children makes for a stronger immune system for life.

Rewilding can spread hope.

Above: A planted-up tree pit in central London. See: Throw It, Grow It: London’s Guerrilla Gardeners.

Despair with the state of the world can lead to a sense of helplessness but making small contributions is therapeutic. Gardening abandoned, overlooked, or stalled spaces is making a difference to invertebrates and birds. On a grander scale, rewilding is a new way of thinking about our place in the web of life and is offered increasingly as a form of green therapy. Learning how pigs create the bumpy ground that nature prefers, or noticing how money spiders balloon through the air in autumn sunlight, stimulates the imagination.

Nature offers perspective.

Above: View over a Devon escarpment, from Sharpham House at dawn. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Retreats have been held for 40 years at Sharpham Trust in the UK, with a more recent emphasis on green therapy. It is well placed, overlooking a sharp bend in the wide and wooded River Dart (seen here in the distance). A spectacular view, at dawn or dusk, can help put things in perspective—and is possibly the best therapy there is.

For more on the benefits of gardening see:

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