Healing power of gardening

Gardening brings me joy and helps me live a more fulfilling life while living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

When I tell people I garden, it’s met with various responses. Some are impressed, some are judgmental, and some are genuinely interested. Little do they know that gardening not only saved me from a very deep depression when I was first diagnosed with RA over 10 years ago, but it brings me more joy than I ever could have expected.

When I was first diagnosed with RA, my life was forever changed. I couldn’t care for my young son, I couldn’t keep up at my physically demanding job as a hospital-based nurse practitioner, and I was not able to run or lift weights as I previously did to stay active and cope with stress.

I became very sickly and was nearly bedbound for three months from medical complications related to my RA. I had a lot of time on my hands to think and re-prioritize my life. I put my son’s care first, took a less demanding job, and started doing gentle yoga and Pilates workouts whenever I could, but something was still missing.

I had idle downtime with my new lifestyle and my thoughts would race. I had to find another way to keep my mind and body busy without making myself sick or pushing my RA into a flare. It all started with a single trip to a local nursery where I picked up a few plastic pots, a bag of soil, and some random seeds. I planted them on the same day and watched them grow.

About six months later, I ordered a small above-ground planter, put some soil and seeds in it, and watched them grow. The next year, to challenge myself, I started composting my kitchen waste. This same year, I joined some online groups about gardening, bought a few books, and started learning the science behind growing things in the ground in a desert. About a year after that, we had professionals come and lay beautiful stone around an area that was 15 feet long by three feet wide. We filled it with soil and seeds, and watched things grow. About six months later, we invested in some fruit trees for the yard.

The following year, we installed some shelving throughout the interior of our home and started bringing home both common and exotic houseplants. As I’m sure you can see where this is going, one small pot with soil turned into a big gardening hobby. Gardening has brought me more joy than I could have ever expected and for many different reasons.

Connecting with the earth

Grounding, also known as earthing, is a technique I personally use to connect my physical body to the earth’s energy. I would agree with some experts that during this practice free electrons are transferred to me from the earth, resulting in pain reduction and reduced inflammation.

I love getting my RA riddled hands dirty in the soil while playing with the different textures and temperatures. This immediately relieves pain and swelling in my hands while bringing me an immediate rush of pure bliss.

Staying active

Living with RA has challenged me to modify my exercise routine. Prior to my diagnoses, I was a dedicated runner and weightlifter, and I went to the gym nearly every day. When I started to grow things, I noticed I was staying more active through bending, lifting, and squatting while working in the garden.

Shopping for my garden keeps me active, too. I do as much as possible, and then I utilize the delivery services that most nurseries and landscapers offer to avoid doing the heavy lifting myself when I’m not feeling up to it or when it’s too much.

Commuting with nature

Spending time in my garden usually means fostering my relationship with the earth and appreciating her natural beauty. In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, it’s easy for me to forget to stop and smell the roses. As cliche as this is, there is so much truth to it.

Reflecting in tranquility

Gardening gives me time to process my thoughts without interruptions. I can think through big decisions or decompress from a tough day with this time. I have had some big ideas and big breakthroughs during my time in the garden. If I don’t have anything to mull over at that time, I enjoy listening to podcasts or audiobooks while I work, too.

Challenging my mind

Before gardening, I tried other hobbies like building LEGO sets and playing golf, and I was so frustrated at times that it made my entire mood worse.

Gardening may seem straightforward compared to some hobbies, yet it presents its own unique challenges. Nursing a plant back to health, managing compost, and mastering the timing and methods of planting all require careful consideration. These challenges keep me on my toes without overwhelming frustration, offering just the right balance of mental stimulation and satisfaction.

Embracing all seasons

Although gardening may seem seasonal, it’s really an all-year, all-weather hobby. Sometimes I start seeds indoors in the very hot or very cold months, I compost all year long without any lulls, and there seems to always be something sprouting (whether I intended it or not). Of course, I have dozens of house plants that require care no matter what the weather is like outside. The flip side is that if I decide to take a break from gardening, I can jump back in at any time. Unlike other hobbies, your skills don’t decline, memberships don’t expire, and they don’t close seasonally. It’s really fulfilling to have a hobby that is truly available any time of the year.

Helping the environment

I reduce landfill waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by composting my organic household waste. Some science shows that composting helps to sequester carbon, or lock carbon in soil, reducing atmospheric levels as well as reduce water usage, as compost amended soil retains more water.

Embracing the outdoors

If you’re living with RA like me, you can relate when I say that my bed is my best friend. I love gardening because it not only gives me a reason to get out of bed, but it gets me outdoors and a dirty. It’s a dirty hobby, too, so I don’t need nice clothes, styled hair, or make-up on to do it. If I want, I can even do it in my pajamas.

Enhancing outdoor spaces

Gardens are colorful and welcoming for people. It’s a beautiful addition to my home and my outdoor space. The colors and smells the flowering plants produce are a bonus to this lovely hobby.

Sharing the harvest

I absolutely love gifting bags and baskets of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and rooted houseplant cuttings. It’s a unique gift and there’s no wrapping paper required.

Fostering conversations

Loneliness is no stranger to me since living with RA, and connecting with others can be difficult. Having a garden in my yard is always a great way to initiate an interesting conversation — whether we talk about the vegetables I grow, the weather, or the science behind the compost.

My favorite story to share: Many years ago, I planted arugula in my yard. It grew and grew and grew. If you aren’t familiar with arugula, it’s a curvy-shaped leafy green with a nutty, peppery flavor, that most people use as garnishing or for a small side salad. Well, this plant of ours grew to over 10 feet long by three feet tall and it nearly took over my yard. It was like Medusa. Every time I cut off a stem, several more grew back even more significant than the one I had cut off. I ended up having to pull the plant all-together. I joke that if I didn’t kill the plant, the plant would have killed me, my family, and possibly my neighbors.

If someone had told me 10 years ago that someone like me, a nurse practitioner living with RA, would grow fruits and vegetables in her desert back yard one day, I would have laughed out loud. Yet gardening truly saved me from a deep depression when I was first diagnosed with RA.  If you aren’t interested in gardening yourself, no problem. Try to find something that brings you joy and just start small.

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Chevalier, G, et al. “Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health. 2012. doi: https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/291541.

Menigoz, W, et al. “Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine Strategies Should Include Earthing (Grounding): Review of Research Evidence and Clinical Observations.” EXPLORE . May 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2019.10.005.

Nordahl, S, et al. “Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutant Emissions from Composting.” Environmental Science & Technology. February 14, 2023. doi: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c05846.

Stone, W, et al. “Improving Crop Growing Conditions with Water Treatment Residual and Compost Co‐amendments: Soil–Water Dynamics.” Journal of Environmental Quality. March 2024. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jeq2.20541.

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