As the novel coronavirus ravaged the nation last March, panicked citizens emptied store shelves of toilet paper, macaroni, and even baking yeast. More surprising to long-time gardeners was the unhappy discovery that their favorite seed catalogs were also cleaned out.

In many regions, not a seed packet could be found as “doomsday” gardens took root in backyards and patios across the country. Now, as harvest season approaches, it’s clear these vegetable patches have provided more than just fresh produce—they also offer refuge from stress while helping promote mental and physical well-being.

Gardening has been recognized as a form of therapy since the time of ancient Egypt when anxious royalty were prescribed comforting strolls among the palace greenery. Over the centuries, that people-plant-nature connection has been integrated into many clinical mental health treatments and settings.

For Master Gardeners Lindy Sheehan and Michelle Murphy at Washington State University Yakima County Extension, therapeutic gardening is part of a life-long passion for horticulture.

“There isn’t a bad day in the garden,” said Murphy. “No matter what shape the garden’s in, it helps with the troubles of the day. When you leave, you’re a little calmer, a little more connected, and can let go of some of the things on your mind.”

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, therapeutic gardens are designed to facilitate interaction with the healing element of nature. These gardens range from senior community and enabled gardens to sensory and meditation gardens. Each is designed to help people increase physical fitness and mobility as well as reduce anxiety, stress, and pain.

But it’s not just the inherent restful effects of a green space. Studies show that a harmless soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, can lift depression by activating the same serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain that are targeted by Prozac. Simply inhaling the microbes while digging in soil can help improve mood. A 2019 paper in the journal Psychopharmacology reports these mycobacteria may owe their soothing properties to a special type of fat that has anti-inflammatory effects on the brain.

Sheehan, who managed the Ballard P-Patch community garden in Seattle for 12 years, says that many people consider the garden to be their “happy place.” But for those with limited mobility and physical or mental challenges, gardening can be tough.

An example of enabled gardening is a bench with a raised beds so that gardeners can sit while tending their plants.

To that end, Sheehan has devoted much of her career to the promotion of enabled gardening including developing Extension programs on the subject. She first introduced the concept of enabled gardening at P-Patch, where they added permeable hardscape paths to aid the navigation of wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers. She also installed stock tanks and benches with raised beds so gardeners could sit while tending their plants.

“Enabled can mean many things,” said Sheehan. “Most think it means elderly people who can’t bend or move very well, but it also includes children who need garden beds that are close to the ground. And for those in wheelchairs, table gardens reduce fatigue from reaching and can be simple and inexpensive to make.”

Enabled gardening also includes the use of ergonomic hand tools and easy-grip water faucets. Sheehan says keeping things organized and accessible is key—such as storing tools in a brightly-painted mailbox.

“There are so many benefits from gardening and, especially for those who live alone, it’s a social outlet,” she said. “You can grow your own cherry tomatoes or roses in a small space like a deck and share them as gifts.”

Those rewards are especially important for aging adults according to Seattle’s Eldergrow program, which was founded in 2015 to help connect elders with the healing properties of nature.

A man works at a raised garden bed.
At a raised garden bed (Courtesy WSU Extension Master Gardeners Program)

Now offered in 21 states, Eldergrow provides a mobile sensory garden and therapeutic horticulture classes for seniors living in residential and nursing care facilities. Murphy is an Eldergrow educator at two such facilities in the Yakima area, where she held classes until the statewide lockdown prohibited visitors.

“For each class, we would typically bring in a plant and talk about it,” said Murphy. “We provide activities that focus on sensory and cognitive stimulation as well as motor and social skills. The residents get to touch and smell things like mint, basil, or a polka-dot plant and then a couple people assist with planting it in the garden.

“After planting, they often sit by the garden which stimulates reminiscing,” she said. “When we cut the herbs and pass them around, some don’t like the smell of rosemary or thyme, but others say it smells like pizza and it brings back wonderful memories of family.”

Although their Master Gardener office was physically closed last spring, both Murphy and Sheehan reported a spike in phone calls and email requests.

“Gardening is all new to many people, so I always encourage them to start with small containers and grow what makes them happy,” said Sheehan. “They’ll feel better, they won’t be as frustrated, and it really will be therapeutic.”

“It’s so important that we focus on things that soothe us right now, nature being way up on the list,” adds Murphy. “If any good can come out of this, people have gotten off their phones a bit and are doing more outside with their families. COVID-19 is a huge black cloud but if there is a silver lining, I’d say that’s it.”

(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Washington State Magazine.)