Community Gardens Benefit Those with Intellectual Disabilities and Mental Health Issues

drawing of people gardening on a roof

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that gardening can boost your mood and relieve stress.
  • Community gardens in urban settings present an opportunity to promote mental well-being and safe socialization.
  • Starting a garden on your own or in your community requires planning, patience and organization.

The pandemic became a time to explore new hobbies. While some were definitely more beneficial than others, one especially health-centric practice has exhibited staying power: gardening.

During the pandemic, 18.3 million people chose to start gardening, and 89% of them plan to continue gardening post-pandemic, according to the National Gardening Survey.

In urban areas, gardening and farming on rooftops and in community settings began taking off well before Covid-19. As more city-dwellers are incorporating gardening into their lives, they're seeing some major mental health benefits, as well.

Press Play for Advice On Using Plants to Boost Mental Health

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how growing a garden can help reduce your depression symptoms. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now : Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

The Benefits of Gardening

Gardening, in general, has proven to be an incredible practice for relieving stress. And studies show that community gardens are an efficient and affordable method of promoting physical health and mental well-being.

When it comes to general health, happiness and mental health, researchers have found that community gardeners have significantly better outcomes than their neighbors who don't partake in gardening activities.

And a small study that looked at urban rooftop gardening in Spain found that the practice was associated with a greater sense of purpose and social inclusion, emotional and physical well-being, and general quality of life for individuals living with intellectual disabilities or mental health disorders.

Markus Wullimann, HTL

They are learning how to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The work helps them to get out of their own heads and engage in something meaningful to them and others.

— Markus Wullimann, HTL

As a horticultural therapist at CooperRiis Healing Community, Markus Wullimann, HTR, treats patients through experiential therapies on a working farm.

The program is rooted in the healing power of social engagement and community, Wullimann says, as residents of the program dedicate up to 20 hours a week doing work on the farm that aligns with their interests, whether that's growing and preparing food, gardening and landscaping, caring for animals, or creating art.

"By contributing to the community, residents are empowered and their dreams and aspirations awakened, helping set them on the path to mental health recovery," Wullimann says. "They are learning how to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The work helps them to get out of their own heads and engage in something meaningful to them and others."

He sees the work being done in the gardens and greenhouses as especially therapeutic. The plants can only thrive when the right preparation, weeding, and pruning is taken care of. This process becomes a strong metaphor for the mental healing journey.

The mental benefits of community gardens also come from their ability to provide safe spaces that foster socialization and common purpose.

"When you’re in community with other people who love it, it creates a very good connection," says Mary Joye, LMHC. "The garden is a good buffer for those who have social anxiety and like quiet pursuits, but also don’t like the loneliness. It provides a sense of safety and creativity."

John La Puma, MD, founder and steward of regenerative urban farm La Puma Farms, echoes the fact that gardening, and nature in general, can provide an opportunity for strong bonding.

"Running into people, sharing a moment of awe or a gardening tool or tip, and sharing the produce you raise are part of why gardening feels good," La Puma says.

How To Start Gardening

For those hoping to get into gardening on their own, the first key to success is site selection. This requires carefully observing the site for several weeks, ideally before planting. La Puma suggests assessing the location by asking questions like, how does the sun hit? To grow vegetables, for example, the site must get at least six hours of sunlight each day. When is it windy? Are there predators nearby? Is it convenient to your house?

New gardeners should start with easy-to-grow veggies like lettuce, turnips, radishes, beans, and peas before moving onto things like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. And a garden is only as good as its soil, La Puma says, as well as its gardeners' ability to improve it. In the context of community gardens, this requires organization.

John La Puma, MD

Running into people, sharing a moment of awe or a gardening tool or tip, and sharing the produce you raise are part of why gardening feels good.

— John La Puma, MD

"I think of community gardens as cooperatives, filled with teamwork and long-term vision," La Puma says.

To organize a community garden, the American Community Gardening Association recommends meeting with people who are interested, starting with a committee of five people, identifying a coordinator to handle membership, and acquiring financial sponsors to help cover costs of supplies and insurance.

Preparing and developing the site, as well as creating rules and systems of communication are all part of creating and maintaining a successful community garden. Committing to such an endeavor can have an incredibly positive impact on not only the gardeners tending to it, but the community itself.

What This Means For You

If you're interested in starting or joining a community garden, search for resources onlinevia your city or other community gardening forums. The American Community Gardening Association is a great place to start.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Gardening Association. 2021 national gardening survey released.

  2. Lampert T, Costa J, Santos O, Sousa J, Ribeiro T, Freire E. Evidence on the contribution of community gardens to promote physical and mental health and well-being of non-institutionalized individuals: A systematic review. Pikhart M, ed. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(8):e0255621. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0255621

  3. Triguero-Mas M, Anguelovski I, Cirac-Claveras J, et al. Quality of life benefits of urban rooftop gardening for people with intellectual disabilities or mental health disordersPrev Chronic Dis. 2020;17:200087. doi:10.5888/pcd17.200087

  4. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Planning the vegetable garden.

  5. American Gardening Association. 10 steps to starting a community garden.