By Elizabeth Haldeman

Ah, spring. The warmer weather and longer, sunny days coax a rainbow of color from the soil as the earth slowly awakens from its cold winter’s nap. But the very best part of this perennial transformation? It is finally gardening season!

Growing a healthy mind – For me, gardening offers more than just the opportunity to grow some fresh food for my dinner table. As a licensed occupational therapist at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders, I recognize that gardening offers powerful mental health benefits. At Sheppard Pratt, our patents benefit from horticulture therapy – the use of gardening and plant-based activities to help our patients achieve specific treatment goals.

The benefits of horticulture have been documented since humankind’s earliest days. Gardening has been found to reduce levels of stress hormones, and improve mood, social skills, self-esteem, and focus, all of which are especially beneficial to individuals struggling with mental health conditions. Today, horticulture therapy is used in a variety of rehabilitative, recreational, and vocational settings. Fresh air, mental stimulation, working toward a goal, utilization of fine-motor skills, and engaging higher-order cognitive processes like planning and problem-solving all combine to help improve mental health.

For example, some of our patients at the Center for Eating Disorders have lost a healthy life balance because of their preoccupation with food. Exposing them to gardening, a leisure activity they might enjoy, helps them adjust their focus away from their disorder and onto something practical and fun. Our horticulture group spends time planning our crops, planting and tending the garden, and then – the best part – harvesting what’s growing! Eventually, we even grow enough to add garden-fresh ingredients into our meals. My favorite was the time we made salsa using tomatoes that our horticulture group had grown!

Horticulture how-to – We can all use gardening as a relaxing leisure activity. Anyone can spend time planning, tending, and caring for their own garden to experience its benefits. You don’t even need a large plot of land. Just a few pots or containers is all the space you need to grow a nice variety of herbs, smaller vegetables like cherry tomatoes and plenty of flowers and plants. There are also a number of community gardens throughout the Baltimore region that offer space for residents who may not have access to greenspace near their own home. Community gardens offer an additional benefit: the social stimulation of working alongside other fellow gardeners.

So what are you waiting for? March is the perfect time to plant your garden! If you’re a beginner, visit your local home and garden store to get started. Ask to speak to a staff member with expertise in gardening who can help you strategize the types of plants that would work best for your outdoor space, given its soil makeup and access to sun and shade.

And be patient. It may take you a few seasons to determine the right combination of what grows well in your garden. Remember – the most important thing your garden can grow is the harvest of reduced anxiety, elevated self-esteem and improved wellbeing!

Elizabeth Haldeman is a senior occupational therapist for Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders.