Dirt Therapy

“Gardening is cheaper than therapy!” I have read that on many memes and funny graphics depicting women harvesting tomatoes with their hair in total disarray, chaos, and dirt-covered children all around them. I am sure that to a degree that is true, at least until one discovers seed companies and plant sales.

The statement does, however, inspire thought. As a living, breathing human, I have worries, struggles, anxiety, and stress, just like every other living, breathing human. But overall, I like to think of myself as a person full of hope, happiness, and gratitude. So how did I become so positive despite the negative thoughts rambling through my brain like a freight train? The answer is quite simple. I took it to the dirt.

I grew up helping my grandparents and parents with the summer garden. Lots of sweat went into those summer tomatoes. Once I became an adult, I drifted away from gardening, but kept returning time after time, until I stuck with it for good in 2020. Like many people during the pandemic, I was at home all day, every day, with my rambunctious children, and a houseful of noise in general. Working remotely plus attempting to homeschool children, cook dinner, and take care of everyone was overwhelming, and quite frankly, a lot. I also became discouraged because grocery store offerings were lacking, and what was available was not good quality. So, I started a container garden.


That first garden was small, just a few containers with cherry tomatoes, a couple of pepper plants, and a few flowers, but it quickly became my escape, my place of rest and solitude. When the workday was too stressful, or the kids were too loud, or the house felt too confining, outside I went. I noticed a shift as I worked in the soil, pulling weeds, watering the plants, and performing other garden tasks. I was no longer consumed with stress and uncertainty. I began to look forward to the next season, the next plant, the next good thing. I turned that container garden into a backyard oasis, adding more vegetables, more flowers, and more vibrancy. My husband and I built a small greenhouse so I would have a way to protect some frost-tender plants when winter came, and I looked forward to caring for them in the spring.

I can remember specific moments in the garden when I would be thinking about events in my life that caused me sadness, anguish, and general unhappiness. I remember pouring my emotions into the soil and leaving them there, buried with new seeds and salty tears. It was like working the soil freed me from the pain I felt over so many things. When my Papa passed away in 2021, I turned to the dirt, but this time, it helped me to connect with his memory, and remember the man he was.

If you have gardened for any length of time, you know that some physical labor is involved, whether you are hauling soil around, carrying heavy containers, raking in nutrients, pulling up plants, or tilling the land. I have found this sweat equity, as my boss refers to it, helps to work through some aggression and stress. Sometimes sweating out those feelings helps you approach the issue with a clear head and peaceful heart.

There have been scientific studies that show that putting your hands in the garden soil increases serotonin. Serotonin is the brain chemical that assists with mood regulation. Outside of the brain, serotonin helps send messages in the brain and central nervous system, constricts blood vessels, assists with digestion, and helps control the passage of food through the gut. The bacterium in the soil triggers the release of this happy chemical, so touching the garden earth can help you deal with depression, anxiety, and stress. It is no wonder that it felt like I was leaving my emotional pain there in the soil.

Mental health experts state that a healthier diet with fewer processed foods can improve mental health. Growing a vegetable garden means that you can have fresh, farm-to-table snacks or meals readily and easily available. A thirty-second walk to your backyard garden really doesn’t get any fresher! Knowing there are juicy tomatoes, crispy okra, spicy peppers, sweet carrots, and tender lettuce leaves right outside my door helps me make healthier meals for my family, which also means healthier for our mental well-being. 


These days, I am getting more out of the soil than I pour into it. Those three years of ‘dirt therapy’ really changed my mindset. Tending to the tomatoes, pruning zinnias, pulling weeds, amending soil, and crafting vegetable-focused meals have allowed my mind to let go of worries and stress, and embrace the beauty of the garden. Instead of thinking about the anxiety I feel from work deadlines and busy schedules, I spend time marveling at the bees buzzing around the sunflowers, the marigolds with their bright, flashy blooms peeking between pepper plants, and the fast-growing okra, quickly growing from a baby pod to ready to be harvested in a few, short hours. 

Is gardening cheaper than therapy? No, unless you can garden for free somehow. And if you do, please teach me your ways! However, gardening is a form of therapy. There are scientific studies proving as much, and there are gardens installed in hospital courtyards to help patients recover from injuries. Gardening offers a promise for tomorrow, which often can save us from our present. I encourage you to plant one seed and tend it well. See if the resulting plant offers you that place of respite I find myself in with my own garden. And if you suddenly end up with a thousand plants, that is okay, too.





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