The hobby that makes us happier and healthier

What if your children or grandchildren could take up a hobby that would make them happier and healthier throughout their lifetime?

Well, give those kids a little watering can and take them outside because introducing them to gardening is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Research has shown that for children and adolescents gardening helps to:

  • reduce stress and anger.
  • provide quiet time for reflection.
  •  improve concentration and memory.
  • create a sense of achievement and empowerment (especially in children who struggle academically)
  • improve educational performance.

When I worked in a primary school one of the most popular activities was Gardening Club; children constantly asked when the club was starting up again. Some of the children who showed the most natural ability were ones who struggled academically.  Children should be allowed to find what they’re good at; it might not be algebra.

This week it was announced that gardening is one of the activities that the NHS is to prescribe to children (aged 9-13) as part of a campaign to improve mental health and tackle loneliness following evidence that anxiousness among pupils has worsened following the pandemic.

Around 40 per cent of the UK population describe themselves as active gardeners and it’s estimated that around 7 million took up gardening for the first time during the pandemic.

Neuroscientist and psychologist Andrea Mechelli, who is professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London, is studying how nature affects wellbeing. His research has shown that even small pockets of green spaces can lead to measurable improvements in mental wellbeing that last over time.

He says: ‘Even in a dense urban environment you can access trees, you can hear birdsong. We found that when people can see trees, there is an increase in mental wellbeing, and this lasts at least eight hours. We find similar results for birdsong. Small can still be impactful.’

Active participation – when you perform an act of care for the landscape – can be powerful. ‘For example, planting, or taking care of trees will increase biodiversity but will also reduce air pollution and will have a direct benefit on our own mental wellbeing.’

He has found that people are 28 per cent less likely to feel lonely when they are in an environment that includes natural features such as trees, plants and birds.

If you have no access to a garden, he suggests watering green areas around where you live. There is a group of people in London who are taking care of tree pits – planting flowers and watering tree pits.

‘When people take care of the landscape where they live, they’re taking care of themselves.’

He is puzzled as to why we are not capitalising on this resource. ‘It’s a free intervention that can lead to measurable improvements without side-effects, which is amazing.’ (Interview in The Observer 26.05.24)

Many other studies have proven that gardening is good for your mental and physical health.   

Scientists have found that soil contains a natural anti-depressant which stimulates the production of serotonin. Gardeners inhale the bacteria, mycobacterium vaccae, and have contact with it when touching soil. No wonder so many people call the garden their happy place.

The physical activity involved in planting, weeding, digging, raking and mowing means keen gardeners can expend the same amount of energy as running or going to the gym.

Gardening has been shown to:

  • increase life satisfaction.
  • promote relationships in families and communities.
  • promote bone health.
  • reduce falls and delay dementia symptoms in the elderly.
  •  encourage people to exercise and socialise more.
  • improve blood pressure.
  • reduce stress hormones.

Therapeutic effects have also been seen, alongside other treatments, in cases of depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Those new to gardening can start small, growing in little pots or tin cans. Salad greens such as lettuce, rocket and chard can be grown in small spaces.

Take inspiration from people who have proven that gardens can be everywhere – by the front door, on steps, on a balcony and in community spaces.

 Horticulturalist Alys Fowler managed to grow plants on her apartment fire escape in New York and joined a gardening community which reused discarded objects found in the city’s streets.

People who don’t have a garden of their own can volunteer in urban or community gardens. There are also schemes where people with the gardening space but no time or inclination can make their gardens available to those with the passion but no plot.  Contact your local authority or check online for details.

In his book The Science of Gardening, Dr Stu Farrimond describes gardening as ‘the perfect antidote to doom-scrolling through today’s news, it reconnects us with the perpetual cycle of life, death and renewal of which we are all a part. In fact I can think of no other pursuit that offers more.’


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