How Plants Help Us Feel Better

How Plants Help Us Feel Better: The Growing Need

It’s something most people feel more than they know—that is, how plants help us. Imagine you’re in a large, rundown parking lot, crumbling concrete. The only evidence of nature is a weed or two growing from cracks. If it’s cold, it feels even colder. If it’s hot, it’s miserably hot. Internally, you’re on edge. You look at a group of teenagers in the distance with suspicion. Everything is telling you that you’re in a place you’d rather not be.

plants help us

This urban residential district in Milan, Italy, taps into the healing powers of plants for its residents.

Contrast that with this. You’re in a beautiful park—shade trees, flowers, people enjoying themselves. You’re feeling different, right? Uplifted, relaxed, smiling at others, maybe even willing to pick up a piece of trash or fetch an overthrown ball for some kids, maybe the same kids who would have made you nervous before. The difference is night and day.

As private gardeners and green industry professionals, are we true believers in the transformative power of plants in a well-designed landscape? Are we doing enough to raise the bar in our communities, and hence bringing the bottom end of this spectrum at least somewhat closer to the top?

Plants Help Us: They’re a Need, Not a Want

Everybody knows how more and better plants improve the environment. More turf, less concrete. More flowers, less turf. Throw in shrubs and trees and now we have an ecosystem, even in busy suburbs and glass-and-steel downtowns. This supports wildlife, improves air and water quality, retards soil erosion and so on.

Plants help us

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side.

What gets forgotten is that people are nature too, and as such we need it in our daily lives. E.O. Wilson argued this in 1986 in his book Biophilia. He proposed that because we evolved from nature, we have an affinity with it. It is in our blood, indeed even in our DNA. Seawater and human blood are very similar. Chlorophyll is chemically almost the same as hemoglobin. Plants, animals, homo sapiens, we’re all life, depending on each other, supporting each other. Ultimately, Wilson asks, “Are people who are separated from regular contact with nature deprived?” The answer is obvious. Damn straight they are.

Equally obvious: horticulture in the form of cultivated landscapes is the only connection to nature for most people today.

Once upon a time, urban horticulture was considered a nice luxury. But as cities grow bigger and suburbs become cities, and as we march toward a future of considerable challenges, more and better horticulture is moving out of the “nice to have” column and into the “necessary” column. Yes, it costs money to plant and maintain street trees, annual containers, parks and other plantings, but the benefits are large. Study after study suggests that such things increase one’s sense of community, reduce crime, improve health and sense of well-being, increase cognitive function and more.

Examples. Consider the million-tree planting programs several large cities have adopted. For many city dwellers, street trees might be their only regular connection to nature for weeks on end. What is the value of that? Well, according to a recent study the University of Chicago conducted in Toronto, just 10 trees per city block raised residents’ perceived health to that of people with an income level $10,000 higher and to people 7 years younger. Multiply that value by millions of Angelinos, Atlantans or New Yorkers and surely the math works. These programs pay for themselves.

But it doesn’t have to be just trees. The High Line in New York City has virtually singlehandedly transformed the rundown Meatpacking District of Manhattan into a popular area to visit and live. Built on the bones of a long-abandoned elevated railroad, the High Line is a masterfully designed mile-and-a-half garden. Visitors and residents embraced the gardens immediately. It draws over five million visitors a year. As always happens when a park is created or improved, crime and blight fell. New investment poured into those neighborhoods, and many of the refurbished or new buildings feature their own roof and balcony gardens.

And that’s a very important point. The average person these days may not understand or consciously value horticulture, but when they are exposed to it done well, they get it. They love it, and they want it. Suddenly, they feel the better quality of life plants and gardens provide.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, a new hospital was built. Like many new hospitals, Mercy West invested heavily in plants and gardens. Beautiful, naturalistic, sweeping plantings, a forest of trees, a 2.5-acre green roof and even balconies bedecked with containers of zinnias and vegetables. Literally, every patient room looks out onto horticulture. Surely this came at a considerable cost, so why did they do it? Because repeated, multiple studies suggest that patients with a view of nature have greater survival rates, recover faster and even need fewer pain medications. If merely a view of gardens has this much effect on the sick, what does it mean for healthy people when they walk in gardens, touch plants, smell flowers and, especially, plant things of their own?

Our Role in Helping Plants Help Us

One of my favorite points to make is that more and better horticulture begets more and better horticulture. You see this at the High Line, just as you do in the neighborhoods surrounding any fine public garden, or even homes near particularly good nurseries. We as gardeners must work to promote more and better horticulture where we work, shop, worship and educate our communities. This means sometimes calling out bad landscapes or maintenance practices when we see them, because such things deter more gardeners as much as great horticulture inspires them. It also means we applaud and support good projects by voice, vote, donations and volunteering. More than anything, we must inspire more people to garden by sharing our passion and knowledge. To the unenlightened on the outside looking in, gardening appears hard, mysterious, time consuming. With our experience, those walls can get knocked down one by one.

And at home, plant more. Extend your garden down to the curb. Talk to your neighbors. Maybe organize a garden club. Invite people to visit great gardens with you. For if we as gardeners aren’t willing to sound the trumpet for horticulture, who will?

Scott Beuerlein is a horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. He’s a certified landscape technician and arborist who intensely gardens three-quarters of an acre at home. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Horticulture which you can download here.

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