Living Well

Growing Better Mental Health

By Karon Warren  |  Photography by Adam Mitchell

During the last year, gardening provided a much-needed respite from pandemic worries, with some folks saying it was downright therapeutic.

​When the pandemic hit last March, many people found themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands. After all, they weren’t spending time in work commutes, attending their kids’ extracurricular activities or going to the movies. Once it became clear the pandemic would last much longer than a few weeks, folks started looking for ways to entertain themselves at home. For many, that meant starting a garden or sprucing up their landscape.

​In fact, for many people, gardening became therapy as they looked for an outlet to release stress and worry during the pandemic. Gardening has always been known for many physical health benefits, such as burning calories, improved concentration and, in the case of vegetable gardens, healthier eating.

​But playing in the dirt also provides many mental health benefits that include relieving stress, boosting moods, and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. It certainly had those effects on Sarah Townsend Leach.

​During the pandemic, her husband decided to plant a vegetable garden at their Collierville, Tenn., home. Having grown up in the Southaven/Olive Branch, Miss., area, his family always had a garden as did Leach’s family in Nashville. But neither had taken the time to plant a garden until now. For her husband, gardening is a creative outlet; he loves planting and growing the vegetables and then finding ways to cook up his harvest in the kitchen. For Leach, though, it was all about weeding the garden.

​“My nature is to clean up and throw out, so I started weeding the flowerbeds,” Leach says.

She knew of the stress-relieving effects of gardening, and she also loved the boost of endorphins she received from the physical labor of her efforts.

“I was always aware that I was starting with chaos and bringing order to the area,” she says. “It allowed me to be in control when everything else was out of our control. Having a project you can control is good for your mental health.”

Memphis resident Elizabeth Palomo also upped her gardening game during the pandemic in an effort to create a joyful space for herself at home.

“It was incredibly therapeutic to take a plot of featureless lawn and turn it into a place of color and life,” she says.

Palomo filled her flowerbeds with purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, and salvia with a backdrop of trellised cucumbers.

​“I learned recently there are microbes in soil that help with depression,” she says. “Just touching and breathing real, healthy soil can improve your mood significantly. I would really recommend taking up gardening to anyone who has been feeling down.”

​Even Desoto Magazine’s own publisher and creative director, Adam Mitchell, joined the gardening trend. He says he was like others who experienced a distrust regarding what to buy at stores because no one really knew what to expect from the COVID-19 virus. Plus, as he says, he now had the time on his hands to give it a go.

In early April 2020, Mitchell joined a Facebook group — Square Foot Gardening — to learn all he could about raised gardens. He soon had an 8-foot-by-8-foot raised garden up and ready to go. He planted tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and zucchini squash. By mid-June, he says the garden was “busting out.”

​“It was fun, and I can’t wait to do it again,” Mitchell says. “It took my mind off what was happening [during the pandemic].”

His 11-year-old twin daughters helped out, which Mitchell says was a great learning experience for them.

​“They enjoyed the process,” he says. “The girls loved to water the garden. It got them outside and got their hands in the dirt.”

At Southern Roots Nursery and Garden Center in Hernando, co-owner Beth Haley says she definitely saw an uptick in plant sales in 2020. Customers ranged from the usual customers doing their annual sprucing up and spring cleaning to those homeowners redoing a tired landscape or adding to a boring flowerbed, plus plenty of customers wanting to create privacy with trees and shrubs.

Of course, there were plenty of customers who, like Mitchell, were all about vegetable gardens. These shoppers were joined by many inexperienced customers who previously had no interest in the state of their landscaping, Haley says.

​“During quarantine, they were wanting to beautify a space they were now spending so much time in, and they were seeking an escape from the craziness of the pandemic,” she says. “Yard work provided that outlet.”

​In the end, Haley says, with more time than before, people didn’t want a drab landscape.

​“Overall, most customers were excited to be gardening and doing yard work,” she says. “We had lovely weather, and our customers were outside soaking it up.”

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