The Neuroscience of Gardening

Written by Nicole Greig

This fall, I am starting my 3rd term at University of British Columbia (UBC) in the Behavioural Neuroscience program. The key thing I’ve learned in university is how essential taking care of your mental health is!

Between the last minute scramble to answer questions on my exam to sprinting to a lab that started 30 minutes ago, I seldom find time to do anything to release my stress. 

As a School Gardens Assistant with SPEC this past summer,  I had a job where I was able to find that much needed stress relief through gardening as well as  connect with the local community, inspire young minds through garden education and use my critical thinking skills! 


Through gardening, I am able to take refuge in nature as my stress relief and use it as a space that increases my mindfulness by being present in the moment  through various tasks. For example, when deadheading calendula flowers, a seemingly repetitive activity,  I take in the sounds of birds chirping and feel the crisp air. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the phrase “stop and smell the flowers” uses the garden as a form of imagery to illustrate that sometimes you just need to take a minute to calm down, and take in what is around you. 

I found myself doing this often at Riley Park Community Garden where we would teach day camps. I was in constant awe of my outdoor workspace. Not to mention, I would literally stop and smell all the beautiful flowers along the pollinator border of the garden. This feeling of stress release is not just a feeling, but it’s also backed up by science. One study shows that an increase in interactions with nature also increases the perception of your life being worthwhile, in terms of your behaviour and the activities you engage in (White et al., 2017). Another study that took place in the urban slums of Lima, Peru found similar findings. Not only did researchers find that after implementing urban gardens there was an increase in quality of life, but they also found that there was a reduction in threatening experiences, and increased social capital (Korn et al., 2018). 


The study also showcased that having a garden especially in the neighbourhood, opens the door to conversations between neighbours and community members; cultivating a feeling of trust and reducing levels of stress and violence among citizens. 

North of the equator, these findings hold up too. I find that working in the school gardens often sparks conversations with people passing by about what is growing in the garden, and the role SPEC plays in our community with urban sustainability. I’ve spoken to several people throughout my internship including, a mother and her two children walking by wanting to explore what is growing in the garden beds. This gave me an opportunity to share my knowledge on a certain vegetable, or let them smell the mint and take some home with them. Other times, I’ll receive a question as to why the school has these garden beds, which will allow me to speak on the topic of garden education. It is through these seemingly simple personal interactions that I am not only able to build trust within the community, but also ignite curiosity, and compel further exploration in the world of gardening and food security.


Working with children 6 – 10 years of age in a camp setting and in an outdoor classroom with a range of  personalities, I was keen to put my knowledge of Developmental Psychology to the test! 

I assisted with delivering small activities and helping facilitate some of the lessons at Riley Park Community Garden which in a sense, involved problem solving too.

Working with children has definitely been my favourite part of this job because I love to see the development of their personalities, and be able to foster a curiosity about gardening and nature that they may not have otherwise kindled. I watched children initially fearful of worms slowly warm up to the idea of holding one, and eventually not wanting to put them back into the soil.  I witnessed other children  return the following week  and tell me that they taught their parents what they learned about compost the week prior. Although it may appear  like you can’t get everyone’s attention, or spark anyone’s interest in the beginning, it is moments like these where I find it all worth it.


Critical thinking involves the use of identifying, evaluating, reasoning, reflecting, and analyzing (Monash University , n.d.). These are all skills that can be applied to multiple areas in life. Just like any other skill, it takes practice to cultivate and improve. 

Throughout my post-secondary education in the sciences, there has been one common trend that has been emphasized throughout all of my classes: The Manipulation of Variables 

For instance, if you are trying to identify which part of the brain is used in memory, scientists can temporarily inhibit different parts of a rat’s brain in order to see which manipulation will cause the rat to forget a route it previously learned. The part of the brain that is inhibited when the rat forgets its route can suggest that that is the area responsible for memory.

This has many parallels to gardening. For instance, trying to find out why your plant is not growing in a certain spot in the garden, you simply manipulate the variables one at a time. This could include moving the plant from a sunny to a shady spot, increasing the amount of water it receives, or manipulating the nutrient content within the soil.

This critical thinking and problem solving aspect is not one I would usually associate with gardening, but it is ever  present. 

Similar to a lot of university students who are not in class for the summer, my brain tends to dive into a deep slumber, and only once in a blue moon do two neurons shake hands and allow me to experience critical thinking. But this position allowed me to both enjoy the great outdoors, and use my brain. 

One of the great parts about gardening is the accessibility of it all. There are ample opportunities to get started right away both in your own home, or your local community. If you want to get involved with gardening or other environmental efforts in your community, you can find volunteer opportunities with SPEC

For the home gardener, I recommend visiting the West Coast Seeds to access several resources that can aid your gardening journey in almost any way you can imagine.

Happy gardening!


  1. Critical thinking. (2020, February 23). Retrieved from https://www.monash.edu/rlo/research-writing-assignments/critical-thinking#module_1.5_1456252
  2. Korn, A., Bolton, S. M., Spencer, B., Alarcon, J. A., Andrews, L., & Voss, J. G. (2018). Physical and Mental Health Impacts of Household Gardens in an Urban Slum in Lima, Peru. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,15(8), 1751. doi:10.3390/ijerph15081751
  3. White, M. P., Pahl, S., Wheeler, B. W., Depledge, M. H., & Fleming, L. E. (2017). Natural environments and subjective wellbeing: Different types of exposure are associated with different aspects of wellbeing. Health & Place,45, 77-84. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2017.03.008