Did you hear about the guy who hauled in a load of soil to top off his garden? The plot thickened.

We can lighten our spirits with a little humor, but we’re all under tremendous stress from this pandemic. Gardening won’t erase all our problems, but working with plants is a well-known stress reliever.

The Journal of Health and Psychology in 2012 reported the first research-based evidence demonstrating that gardening promotes relief from acute stress. In the study, participants were placed in stressful situations, followed by recovery activities. Those who were given gardening tasks measured longer-lasting reduction in the stress hormone cortisol than participants in other activities.

A bacterium in soil has been found to stimulate the production of a mood-lifting hormone, helping humans to be happier. Forum file photo
A bacterium in soil has been found to stimulate the production of a mood-lifting hormone, helping humans to be happier. Forum file photo

Working with soil can even make us happier. In 2011, Neuroscience Journal described research showing that a beneficial bacterium common in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in the human body, elevating mood and decreasing anxiety.

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Orchid plants are long-blooming, relatively easy houseplants that can provide uplifting beauty indoors. Forum file photo
Orchid plants are long-blooming, relatively easy houseplants that can provide uplifting beauty indoors. Forum file photo

Being surrounded with greenery can even make life more manageable, according to the Journal of Environmental Behavior. In a study conducted by Chicago Public Housing, residents of buildings landscaped with trees, shrubs and lawngrass were more likely to be optimistic about life and believed they could handle life’s situations, as opposed to responses from residents of buildings devoid of landscaping and greenery.

The University of North Carolina describes how working with plants improves our self-esteem as we watch our houseplants grow, observe the beauty of flowers we plant and harvest the fruits and vegetables from the gardens we’ve tended. The university also reports that gardening activity helps our sleep patterns.

The world of gardening offers something for everyone, and here are suggestions to enjoy its stress-relieving benefits, even without a yard or garden.

As routines are forced to slow, we can take time to observe nature’s beauty as spring unfolds. Forum file photo
As routines are forced to slow, we can take time to observe nature’s beauty as spring unfolds. Forum file photo

ARCHIVE: Read more of Don Kinzler's Growing Together columns

  • Take extra time to work with your houseplants. Maybe they need repotting or trimming. Remove yellow leaves and debris from the soil surface. Add a little fresh soil after cultivating hard-packed soil with a table fork. Start more houseplants by rooting cuttings.
  • Visit a garden center. Even if you’re not currently in the market to buy, a slow stroll through a greenhouse in early spring is fun.
  • Take an inspiring tour of a botanical garden from the comfort of your own home. Do an online search for “virtual tours of botanical gardens” or “virtual tours of flower gardens.“ For example, view the inspirational series of videos from garden columnist Susan Mulvihill by searching “Everyone Can Grow a Garden! Susan’s in the Garden.”
  • If you have a yard with shrubs, spend time pruning on nice days before they show signs of new growth. Shrubs can be shaped by selectively shortening branches with a hand shears. Overgrown shrubs like lilac, spirea, dogwood and potentilla can be rejuvenated by cutting back to 6 inches above ground level.
  • Prune fruit trees now before the buds begin to swell, pruning the overall shape into a pyramidal structure with bottom branches being widest.
  • If we are required to spend more time at home, use the extra hours to tackle weeds. It might sound like an odd pastime, but we can win battles against persistent weeds with perseverance. If perennial weeds in lawn, landscape or flower beds are repeatedly cut off just as they emerge from the soil this spring, they deplete all their stored reserves, starve and die before they can replenish themselves through leafy photosynthesis.
  • Many of us have benches in our yards or landscapes, but often don’t have time to just sit and enjoy. If life and events slow, and as weather warms, use the time to relax in the yard, watch, look, listen and absorb the beauty of trees, flowers, gardens and even simple lawngrass.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.