Spring is the time when life creeps back into our surroundings, helping us shake off the gloom of winter. But for some people, the months of March through June aren’t all flowers blooming and bunnies going hippety-hop. For reasons that are poorly understood, mental health can actually take a nosedive during springtime, with a shocking 20 to 60 percent increase in suicide rates.

If a new season has you feeling low, consider taking advantage of the change in the weather in a unique way: Gardening. Tending to a garden has been shown to confer a number of mental health benefits — so much so that an emerging form of therapy called horticultural therapy has taken root (pun intended) as an unconventional treatment for disturbances in mood. Here’s what the research has to say about how caring for plants can yield a harvest of better mental health.

Gardening hands

The Dirt on Gardening

Though many a backyard gardener may sing the praises of getting dirty to cleanse the soul, as an established area of therapy, horticulture is a relatively new frontier. Still, the research that has been conducted is promising. One 2011 study followed subjects with depression who participated in a horticulture therapy program. After 12 weeks, their depression severity declined significantly. Another found that people with disabilities who practiced horticulture had lower rates of depression than non-gardeners. And a meta-analysis from 2017 looked at 22 case studies and determined that anxiety, stress, and general mood disturbance were improved by working on a garden. So what is it about this simple hobby that helps us feel more at peace? Here are six of the reasons.

1. You get outside. One obvious reason for gardening’s effects on mental health is that it gets us outdoors. Research repeatedly confirms that the more time we spend outside, the better we feel mentally and physically. A little bit of sunshine and blue sky go a long way to brighten our mood.

2. You get dirty. In addition to getting us into the great outdoors, planting in the earth forces us to actually get dirty, an activity that’s surprisingly linked to better mental health. In fact, some soil bacteria may actually affect the brain in a similar way to antidepressants! Recent research also shows the influence of the good gut flora on depression. Since we know dirt can benefit the microbiome, it may be worth digging in to boost that critical gut-brain connection.

3. You get out of your head. Need a little time-out from the chatter in your own head? Tending to a garden might be the answer. “Gardening is an activity that seems to help a lot of people get into a ‘flow’ state,” says integrative psychotherapist and couples counselor Hilda Burke. “This means that you don’t notice the time passing, aren’t simultaneously thinking over other things, making plans, or rehashing the past. It helps people switch on to the present moment — in other words, to be more mindful.”

4. You master a skill. Taking on a new hobby has been shown to boost mental health for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the mastery of new skills. If you’re a first-time gardener, you’ll have a lot to learn — and that’s a good thing for your psyche. “Learning a new skill such as what type of fertilizer, soil, level of sunlight, and more can help you grow on a personal level,” says marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind, LMFT, who uses a variety of complementary therapies in her practice.

5. You get to nurture. Providing the right conditions for your seedling babies to sprout and grow may in turn nurture your own spirit. “I’ve had some good results from helping people use plants to start repairing their ability to have trusting relationships,” says licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D. “It’s a way to care for something and nurture it without risk. [People who garden] can experience feelings of nurturing something and being gentle with it, and caring about its welfare, and process those physical and emotional sensations in therapy.” 

6. You connect with the Earth — and with others. Though it may sound like a solitary activity, tending to a garden can actually foster community and reduce isolation. “The best part about having a front-yard wildflower garden is the steady stream of neighbors with their kids and dogs who start strolling by on a daily basis just to see what’s new and blooming,” says certified desert landscape professional Meredith Smith, who says gardening helped her recover from post-partum panic/anxiety/obsessive-compulsive disorder. “My garden doesn’t just bring me joy; it brightens everyone else’s day too.”

Where to Begin

 If you’re ready to reap the benefits of getting dirty (and maybe even eat some fruits of your labor), spring is an excellent time to start a garden — even a tiny one! Not sure what to plant? Check out our Gardening Guide or seasonal guides like Urban Farmer or Mother Earth News that offer recommendations based on location. As your garden blossoms, so may your mental health.

RELATED: 25 Ways to Start an Indoor Herb Garden

(Photo via Getty)