Community gardening proves to be a ‘powerful medicine’

More than 2,000 people with mental health, addiction and other wellbeing issues have had their lives transformed through community gardening, according to an independent study into our Sharing the Harvest project.

people digging potatoesThis new research, published on the first day of spring, found that after taking part in the Sharing the Harvest project, which aimed to work mainly with vulnerable adults, an incredible:

  • 97% of participants reported improved happiness, mood or wellbeing,
  • 89% reported improved physical health, and
  • 90% reported greater skills or confidence

In addition, participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by an average of 14% and physical activity levels across the group increased between 10% and 17%.

We worked with community gardens and partner organisations across the city to deliver a huge range of outdoor activities over 3 years – and reached over 2,000 people with learning disabilities, autism or experience of mental health problems, homelessness, or addiction issues. Every week we could see the benefits the project was bringing to participants.

But even we were amazed to see nearly 100% of people say that they their happiness increased as a result of taking part – that figure speaks for itself. The mental health benefits of gardening, and in particular growing your own food, now seem irrefutable.

Even more inspiring are all the other benefits, such as improved diet and increased exercise. Many people we work with are more likely to have poor physical health and face a range of life challenges, which makes these improvements even more important. Community gardening is clearly powerful medicine.

The research was carried out by the University of Essex’s leading Green Exercise team of researchers who concluded that community gardening schemes should be integrated into Brighton & Hove’s health policy and practice. This is particularly important for a city such as Brighton and Hove where mental health needs  are particularly high. Compared with national averages, a third more people in Brighton and Hove have a diagnosis of mental illness, twice as many people are hospitalised following self-harm and a third more die by suicide.

Case studies

Dave, 53, took part in Roots and Boots for a half-day a week when in a residential rehabilitation unit. Roots and Boots was a therapeutic gardening project for adults who had multiple and complex needs through homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction and mental health difficulties.

Dave said: “That day took me away from the demons in my mind and gave me a bit of space. That was valuable and gave me something to work towards. It gave me the idea that there was something else out there. It’s nice to know you’re contributing to something positive and it helped me to see that there was more to life than the run-down place I’d found myself in.”

Chris, 54, who has experienced some mental health problems, was referred to the Saunders Park Gardening Group. This group worked in the Saunders Park Edible Garden, a vibrant, edible community garden created from a forgotten and neglected space in a public park in Brighton.

Chris said: “It’s nice to get up in the morning to do something worthwhile. Getting out into Saunders Parks with people of similar interest and outlook and mental illnesses makes you feel you’re in a group and you’re not the only one. I’m on state benefits and I’m looking now to find part-time or full-time employment in gardening.”

Long-term impact

The evaluation study analysed questionnaires from more than 1,000 people who had taken part in Sharing the Harvest. As well as the health benefits, the study found 75% of respondents reported improved skills in teamwork, 69% reported gains in motivation and personal development skills, and 60% reported improved communication skills.

It found that 88% of participants believed that taking part would have a long-term impact on them.

Download the full report here, or read a summary.

We are grateful to the Big Lottery Fund for funding the project. Find out more about the benefits of outdoor activities and how to get involved via the links below, or search our directory map for your nearest community garden.

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