Special to The Swellesley Report from Luna Lu, a Wellesley Middle School 8th grader who took part in this summer’s First to the Frontpage journalism program.
When we think of improving mental health, our minds often go to meditation, therapy, and even activities like painting and music. But how often do we think of gardening? Follow the stories of these two remarkable women and their thoughts on how gardening has improved their mental health.
Qing Zhang is a mother residing in the city of Albany, N.Y. During the day she is a warehouse worker; but whenever she is off work, a home gardener is born.
“I first got into gardening this spring. I never knew how big of a change it would be,” she said.
Xin Zhang, the younger sister of Qing, is yet another gardening enthusiast. As a full time MBA student, she barely has enough time for herself. Nevertheless, she makes sure to find time for her beloved plants every day.
Xin first started gardening in the fall of 2018, when she moved into a house with a backyard.
“Turning a seed into a lot more seeds with so many different stages in just several months is amazing,” Xin said.
Indeed, when one small seed blossoms into a seedling, then into beautiful harvests, it is truly an inspirational experience. In some ways, it is even like watching a small child grow up. In fact, when asked what her favorite thing to do in the garden is, Qing replied with a one-word answer: “nursing.”
Both sisters also garden for one simple reason: their mental health. Both women lead busy lives: Qing, a warehouse worker and single-mother raising a child with autism, and Xin, a 45-year-old graduate student. These lifestyles both come with their fair share of stress, but in both women’s cases, therapy and other less-accessible activities are just not options.
In 2018, Xin arrived in the United States from China on a student visa and had lots on her mind. With preparing for graduate school, settling in a new house, and finding a school for her daughter, Xin was severely stressed. Then, as she slowly settled down into her new environment, she began to explore the backyard where she would take refuge during her darkest times.
“If I have a lot of stress from my study or work, I will need a break. Most of the time, I will go to the garden to work for a while. It helps a lot. I stay away from [the] screen and the stress for some time, which works very well,” Xin said.
It was then that she started to experiment with the concept of gardening, specifically planting food. With this being her first time gardening, there was much to learn.
“You need to learn a lot about gardening, soil, sunshine, water, nutrition, companion plants, pests control, pruning, you name it. It is a lot of hard work but it is a lot of fun. [You also get to] harvest [what you’ve grown],” Xin said.
Through constant practice and sheer dedication, Xin gradually began to see progress: tender seedlings, growing taller by the day, soon turned into plump fruits hanging off the stems that melt on your tongue. There was not anything more gratifying than seeing her hard work pay off.
“It made me more peaceful. To work in the garden is so therapeutic to me. The sun, the exercise, the fresh air and of course the harvest made me a happier person,” Xin said.
Qing, although residing in a different state, led a similar life to Xin. Having just moved from Charlottesville, Va., to Albany by herself amidst the pandemic, she was exhausted.
Similar to Xin, Qing began gardening the following spring after she moved into her house, as it also contained a yard.
Inspired by her younger sister’s gardening, Qing set out to experience it herself. What started as a mission to tidy up her yard soon turned into a full-blown love for gardening.
“The process of turning a small seed into a small seedling is so magical. It is witnessing the miracle of life. In that way, gardening has made me more happy and relaxed,” Qing said.
So, the question is, why does gardening help with mental health? One interesting aspect brought into the picture by both sisters is how physical and mental health are strongly tied together.
“Usually mental health is related to physical health. Gardening will help to build up a more robust body due to the exercise, the sunshine, the fresh air. The cycle of life of the plant is itself a therapeutic cycle,” Xin said.
“[Gardening] helped me become more active,” added Qing, who, before finding her passion for gardening, usually spent her day in her dark bedroom binging K-dramas.
In fact, they are not half-wrong. According to Dan Brennan, MD, gardening can not only improve mood, but also boost self-esteem, improve attention span, and encourage social bonds.
“For me, I grow my own vegetables in my garden. I compost. It is good for the environment. It is good for my health. I have learned a lot about gardening. I made friends with people who have the same interests. I should have started gardening earlier,” Xin said.
Gardening, the underrated cure for mental health problems. Just look at the transformation of the Zhang sisters. Maybe you too should put on a set of gloves, grab a shovel, and get to work in your garden! Maybe something good will come of it.
“I strongly recommend gardening to anyone because it’s just so good for your mental and physical health, plus the environment. I especially recommend gardening to families with kids as it is a good activity to help them get hands-on and learn about the environment,” Xin said.
Got ideas to help us support more young journalists? Let us know at email@example.com