The study shows that gardening boosts people’s moods by as much as some common types of exercise, like cycling and walking. That boost is available whether it is done alone or with others, on a city balcony or in a suburban lawn, and it seems to be particularly strong for women and low-income people. And while all types of gardening were shown to be beneficial to mental health, people who grow their own food seem to take particular joy in tending to their plants.
For the study, 370 adults in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area were given a mobile app that recorded their activity during a random one-week period in 2016 and 2017. The app asked every study subject to log the intensity, on a scale of 1 to 7, of emotions experienced during activities in which they participated. The participants tracked two positive emotions (happiness and meaningfulness) and four negative ones (pain, sadness, fatigue and stress).
About 30 percent of the participants said they gardened, spending an average of 1.5 hours a week at it. The researchers conducted a measure of net well-being by subtracting the average recorded intensity of negative emotion experienced during an activity from the average intensity of positive emotions. Then they compared this net well-being measure across various activities.
Gardening was near the top of the activity list in terms of net well-being, statistically indistinguishable from walking, biking, or eating a meal at a restaurant. The only activity scoring significantly higher than gardening, in fact, was “other leisure” — a catchall category that could include anything from watching a movie to socializing with friends.
The study found that while all types of gardening are good for your mental health, people who grow their own vegetables seem to be especially pleased with their efforts relative to those who grow only flowers or decorative plants. A word of caution, however: vegetable gardeners also tended to rate all their activities as more enjoyable than others did, suggesting they may be “a subpopulation experiencing higher net affect over a range of activities,” as the paper puts it.
Exercise is one of the most widely prescribed activities for boosting mental health, and at first blush it may seem unusual that a much less intensive activity like gardening could confer similar benefits. But gardening is a unique composite of various activities that other research has shown to be beneficial.
Being outside, for instance, is associated with happiness. Ditto for even small amounts of physical activity. Eating well is associated with better mental health, as is simply having plants around. Gardening is an amalgamation of all those things.
While there’s a tendency to associate gardening with big suburban yards, this study deliberately included a large sample of people who garden in urban areas, in places like balconies, window ledges and roofs. The authors say policymakers should think about gardening in the context of discussions on how to make cities more livable.
“Many more people garden than we think, and it appears that it associates with higher levels of happiness similar to walking and biking,” said Princeton’s Anu Ramaswami, one of the authors, in a statement. “In the movement to make cities more livable, gardening might be a big part of improving quality-of-life.”
She added, “These findings suggest that, when choosing future well-being projects to fund, we should pay just as much attention to household gardening.”
Gardening appears to be on the upswing during the coronavirus pandemic. Google data, for instance, show that search interest in gardening this year is up threefold relative to similar time periods in prior years, with specific terms like “grow tomatoes” or “grow corn” up by similar amounts. Seed companies are having difficulty keeping up with new orders. Concern over food supply chains is part of the reason, as is a general need for outdoor things to do at home.