Gardening as therapy is one way to promote health and mindfulness. Recognized as ‘horticulture therapy,’ gardening combines gentle movement with mindful enjoyment and it is a valuable holistic pain management strategy.
Gardening improves the ability to cope with pain and stress, while also being a gentle, low-impact form of exercise. If you have a chronic illness, the word ‘gardening’ might conjure up an image of kneeling in the dirt, digging with a spade. You may think engaging in this activity is just asking for a flare-up!
However, we can make gardening a chronic pain friendly activity if we use the right tools and techniques. We also need to re-imagine what a ‘garden’ actually is. After all, a garden is simply an arrangement of cultivated plants. So, from a vertical kitchen herb garden to a vegetable container garden on your patio—the possibilities are endless!
The Benefits of Gardening As Therapy For Chronic Pain Management
When gardening is incorporated as part of a treatment program, it has the fancy name of “horticulture therapy.” Researchers have found that it can enhance the quality of life of people with chronic pain, improve our ability to cope with pain, and decrease our anxiety and stress levels (Quick et al., 2017).
Gardening is a tangible project that leads to a sense of accomplishment, which is often an elusive feeling when you live with illness (Quick et al., 2017). It can be an opportunity to exercise your creativity. Simply looking at greenery for five minutes promotes relaxation and improved mental health. Being in nature, and appreciating the sensory enjoyment of its beauty, scents, and colors improve your mental and emotional well-being and can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Detweiler et al., 2015).
One study demonstrated significant improvements in physical health, coping ability, and health-related quality of life in patients with long-term chronic pain who took part in a pain management program that incorporated horticulture therapy (Verra et al., 2012). When using ergonomic tools and proper techniques (such as lifting from your knees instead of your back), gardening can also be a low-impact form of healthful exercise. If you start a vegetable garden, improving your nutrition is an added bonus (and so reducing your grocery bill)!
Gardening Strategies to Avoid Flares
If kneeling in the dirt is your happy place and you can find a comfortable position for your body, then we encourage you to dig away! But for everyone else, it may be time to re-envision what a garden really is. There are ergonomic tools and techniques that can make backyard gardening accessible. You can also garden indoors, in your kitchen, or on a balcony or porch just as easily as in your yard! Here’s how:
- Container gardening: Growing vegetables, flowers, or succulents in pots, boxes, or barrels may be the easiest way to start a garden. You can plant your seedlings in soil with the pot on a table, and then position your container at a convenient height for watering, all without bending forward. Indoors or outdoors, you can have as many or as few plants as you can handle. Buy small soil bags, or ask for help with this part, and always lift from your knees.
- Vertical gardening: A vertical garden is planted up a wall, for example, on shelves or descending hanging planters, instead of horizontally in the ground. You can create a herb garden on a sunny kitchen wall, or grow flowering plants on an outdoor shelving unit to add color to your patio. Vertical gardens spare you from bending over to tend and water your plants, while still allowing you to creatively arrange plants together, like you can in a flower bed.
- Get the Right Tools: Ensure that you use lightweight tools with non-slip handgrips, as well as extendable or long reach handles if you intend to garden while kneeling or bending over. Having a wheeled cart to move your tools or plants as you work can also save your back.
- Garden Seats: If you do decide to garden in a flower bed, invest in a garden seat or kneeler to help you work ergonomically from a seated or kneeling position, sparing your back and knee joints from additional stress. Choose low maintenance plants that don’t require frequent watering or weeding.
- Raised garden beds, boxes, or planters: elevating the surface of your soil saves you from having to bend over, while still being able to garden out-of-doors in your yard. It also allows you to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of horticulture therapy.
Detweiler, M., et al. (2015). Horticultural Therapy: A Pilot Study on Modulating Cortisol Levels. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 21(4):36-41.
Quick, J., et al. (2017). Vegetable Garden as Therapeutic Horticulture for Patients with Chronic Pain. Pain Medicine 18(11): 2252-2254.
Verra, M., et al. (2012). Horticultural Therapy for Patients With Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain: Results of a Pilot Study. Alternative Therapies 18(2): 44-50.