Gardening can save your life


I use my gardening as a form of meditation. I lose all negativity; it drops away like a dead skin and with it the pain goes.

That’s what Judy Toner, who suffers from fibromyalgia and depression, told writer Anne Dempsey in this story in the Irish Independent. Feeling totally without hope after two failed marriages, and in almost constant pain from her illness, which is related to chronic fatigue syndrome, Toner was sleeping 13 hours a day, and finally reached out to a suicide hotline. They talked her down—after hours—and called her back the next day. She told them she was going to try volunteering at a nearby public garden, Airfield, located in south Dublin.

Seven months later, Toner credits her first day of work at Airfield, which features five acres of ornamental plantings, including a highly-regarded walled garden, as the “beginning of the rest of her life.” She further asserts that she is only totally free from pain when she is gardening: digging, raking, and planting.


I’ll take her word that Airfield is a garden worth her daily labor—its website, oddly, is almost devoid of photography of the actual gardens (what little I found is here)—and I’m even more willing to believe that working in the garden has brought equally dramatic psychological and physical benefits. As not only the Washington Post has noted, gardening is great exercise. Writer, artist, and gardener Bruce Adams researched this for Buffalo Spree in 2006 and found a 1993 study by Barbara Ainsworth that rates gardening as providing the same benefit (i.e., same exertion levels) as moderate walking, bicycling, and water aerobics. Except that it’s better, because it’s not as stressful.

Add to this research Amy’s already cited about bacteria in dirt increasing seratonin levels, and Toner’s story seems good anecdotal evidence of the very real benefits of our favorite obsession. Now, if only we could convince those young would-be gardeners. And all the people we know who are still popping Prozac and vowing to get to the gym some day.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Yes, gardening is moderate exertion unless you are using a shovel or wheelbarrow. Which, it seems to me, I am, most of the time. Then, I’d bet it’s comparable to running.

  2. Three cheers for horticultural therapy! It’s wonderful to hear that people are finding comfort and positive affirmation in the garden. I attended the California chapter of American Horticultural Therapy Association meeting last month and heard about gardening programs for veterans, at drug rehabs, hospitals, prisons and others. Horticultural therapy is a fantastic vocation for anyone interested in gardening and helping others.I plan to become certified. You can read more about it at

  3. Ok, I’m digging all of this (poor pun, but I love poor puns, especially cliched ones). Anywho, what about in the winter? Don’t tell me indoor plants and seed starting are the same sort of work, besides, that has always seemed crazy–it’s just too much, too obsessive. But then again, I’ve SERIOUSLY considered hacking through the ice and snow to pre dig holes for plants I’m thinking of getting come spring….

  4. Okay, I’ll be honest. I LOVE gardening, especially the parts that involve lots of digging and heavy hauling and shoveling. I also love the part that involves buying plants.

    But as a long-time “prozac-popper” (not prozac, but another SSRI to be more precise), I can say that gardening helps. Gardening, however, does not eliminate my need for psychotropic medication. It ONLY helps. If gardening were the wonder cure for clinical depression, I wouldn’t have ended up in a hospital psych ward, and I would not have lapsed into psychotic depression at a later date. I gardened before my mental illness, I gardened through the acute stages of that mental illness, and I continue to garden with mental illness to this day.

    Gardening also doesn’t reduce pain, at least the way I throw myself into it. By the time I finish with a good day in the garden, I’m just as sore as any novice snowboarder. I’ve got bumps and bruises, cuts and scratches, aching knees and shoulders, cramping muscles in my back and buttocks (muscles that get so hard during fall bulb planting season that they have BENT needles during injections), and dirt absolutely everywhere. Gardening for me is hardly pain-free. But instead of giving in to that pain, I merely designated gardening as an “extreme sport” and went out to buy More Plants.

    Gardening may be good for me, but I’m trying to figure out exactly how. After all, heroin would probably be a far less expensive habit than heirloom bulbs and unusual perennials.

  5. I too feel a strong sense of peace when I garden. I really can relate to Judy. In fact, I wrote an entire book on this subject. It is called The Zen of Watering Your Garden.

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