Plants bring peace to gardeners grappling with grief, depression and anxiety

With birdsong and rustling trees serving as a soundtrack, playing in the dirt is one of Naomi Holmstrom’s favourite garden activities.

“If I go out and put my hands in the dirt … it kind of brings back some of those good feelings of being in the sunshine,” said Holmstrom. “That often will help bring me back if I’m starting to feel the depressive symptoms again.”

In 2017, Holmstrom was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. While speaking with her psychologist about ways to manage her symptoms, gardening was floated as a possible tool in her treatment.

Naomi Holmstrom, bottom right, in the garden with her daughters Amara Ison, top, and Kaiya Ison. (Submitted by Naomi Holmstrom)

“I call [depression] falling into the well,” she says. “Being in nature and gardening helps to bring me back out of that.”

Holmstrom gardens on a relatively small plot at her condo in Edmonton. In the height of summer there’s an impressive row of lush planter pots dotting her deck. The jewel in her garden, though, is her alpine plant bed that separates her front walkway from her neighbour’s, where gracefully nodding purple Japanese irises cast shadows over a low wave of juicy-leaved green succulents.

“My neighbour calls it the gazing garden because she says it blooms all the time from the end of April to October,” says Holmstrom.

“Planting something and caring for it through to a mature plant can create a sense of purpose, satisfaction and joy to be able to see something flourish,” said Lindsey Pearson, manager of vocational programs at Alberta Hospital Edmonton.

The facility treats patients with varying mental health concerns. Pearson says the hospital has been running a horticulture therapy program for at least 18 years.

“Gardening reduces stress and anxiety, and calms the soul. Horticulture therapy can mean so many different things to people,” said Pearson.

Gardening reduces stress and anxiety, and calms the soul.- Lindsey Pearson

Researchers have also hypothesized that because people have increasingly moved into urban areas over the past few hundred years, we have become disconnected from microbes that reduced stress hormones in humans.

Some studies suggest that gardening is a way to possibly reconnect with those microbes.

For Holmstrom, removing the plants from their pots, gently teasing out the roots, digging the hole, positioning them in the garden, then watering the new plants is a meditative and calming process.

“Sometimes when you’re feeling … angry or upset, you can just go out and fork the dirt and it’s not going to harm anything,” she said. “You can rip out weeds and put your energy into that instead of into negative thought processes or negative thinking, or unleashing it somewhere else in other destructive ways.”

Lynda Ritchie tending to one of her garden beds at her family home in Manitoba in 2013. (Submitted by Sherri Ritchie)

Self-described amateur gardener Sherri Ritchie says gardening has been a cathartic activity since her mother, Lynda, died in 2019.

“I can hear my mom talking to me when I’m in the garden,” said Ritchie.

Lynda was 63 when she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Sherri says her mom faded quickly, but gardening provided a sense of comfort and connection for both daughter and mother during her illness.

“The garden gives me relief because when I’m out there … I’m remembering Mom in her garden. I’m remembering our trips to the greenhouse, and so it’s giving my mother back to me before she was sick,” said Ritchie.

She says one of her favourite summer activities is sitting on the deck with her husband, just like her mother and father loved to do.

Much like an album full of pictures or a piece of heirloom furniture handed down through generations, Ritchie has inherited her mother’s favourite lilies, which now grow in pride of place in her garden.

Connecting with nature

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic demands physical distance from human support systems, newbie gardener Eric Borowski says he’s always found an easier connection with plants.

“I have always felt a little bit isolated and disconnected from the world around me, which is one of the wonderful things about gardening,” said Borowski. “I don’t have to worry as much about what’s going on in a plant’s mind.”

That disconnection has at times caused anxiety for Borowski, whether it’s connecting with friends in a social setting, or feeling adequate professionally.

Eric Borowski with carrot, zinnia and pepper seedlings he started this spring. (Submitted by Eric Borowski)

“About the highest praise I can give myself is I’m OK at something,” he said. “I feel not worth the time.”

But Borowski says he’s gotten better at finding ways to cope with these feelings. His home is cleverly organized with promising seedling trays of vegetables and ornamental plants ready to bloom this summer.

Borowski, Ritchie and Holmstrom agree the act of nurturing a living organism has given them focus and purpose.

“Gardening has helped my mental health by making me feel like I’m connected to nature and to the world around me in some way,” said Borowski. “I never feel unwelcome in my garden.”

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