Plants, Parks, and Mental Health

Posted by Rebecca Koblin | December 29, 2021

Whether you’re strolling the park, hike a local hiking trail, or tending house plants, the outdoors will promote the sanitary health of almost everyone.

Open space is important “because it gives people the opportunity to be outside,” said Lauren Wasilauski, Montgomery Township Open Space Coordinator, “and I think the pandemic has the value of that space for people who don’t go to many places could really bring places to life because it wasn’t safe. “

“During the pandemic, we saw park use explode,” she said. Visitors come to walk the trails, do sports, connect with friends and family, and just be in nature.

A rite of passage in Montgomery: ice skating on Mill Pond on Dead Tree Road. What could be more exciting? Photo by Barbara A. Preston.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association, “in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 190 million US residents visited a local park, hiking trail, public open space or recreational facility.”

Many people attribute improved mental health to time in nature or with plants, but they don’t know that research has actually backed this claim.

Joel Flagler, Professor of Horticultural Therapy and Agricultural Enhancement at Rutgers University, says, “We have known for centuries that there is a close link between working with plants and improved mental health.”

Horticultural therapy combines gardening and working with plants with traditional therapeutic practices to create a safe space for the patient to heal.

This therapy is “directed by a registered horticultural therapist or other professionals trained in the use of horticulture as a therapeutic modality in support of the program objectives,” according to the American Society for Horticultural Therapy.

Professor Flagler has been involved in horticultural therapy for more than 40 years and contributes to many of the psychological benefits of working with plants.

“We have always been nature beings. Only in the last 200 years have we seen ourselves as above nature. Even today we still depend on plants for all of our needs, ”said Professor Flagler. “Natural rhythms are so crucial. It can be so simple: because we have plants on our windowsill, we perceive the course of the sun better during the day. “

A Christmas cactus blooms on this Rocky Hill windowsill every December. Plants have a physiological effect by lowering blood pressure, improving breathing and, in turn, improving your mental health, according to Gary Altman, director of Rutgers’ Horticultural Therapy Program.

Professor Flagler says that natural rhythms create awareness and a sense of predictability. “We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We know that after winter comes spring and cold is followed by warm weather. We even know that a flower grows when we plant a seed, water it and take care of it, ”he said. [See related article on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).]

Using these natural rhythms has predictable results, said Professor Flagler, and this is especially important at a time “when, more than ever, people feel that everything is so unpredictable”.

According to the director of Rutgers Horticultural Therapy Program, Gary Altman, highlighted the pandemic of the value that plants and gardening add to mental health.

“It’s really important to have the physical plants in your home,” said Altman, “because the green in your space has a physiological effect in that it lowers blood pressure, improves breathing, and in turn affects your mental health . “

Science daily and research from the University of East Anglia supports this claim and states that “exposure to green space reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, premature birth, stress and high blood pressure”.

“For someone who is anxious, goes into a garden and spends time there, it is familiar, it is peaceful, it is calming,” said Altman, “some research suggests that even artificial plants could have a similar effect.”

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One of the best ways to experience plants and nature is to visit the local park. Not only can this help reduce stress, but it is also an opportunity to socialize and connect with the community.

The Montgomery Township Parks and Recreation Department oversees 12 different parks in Belle Mead, Blawenburg, Griggstown, Harlingen, Rocky Hill, and Skillman. According to administrative assistant Suzanne Brodbeck, reservations for parking spaces have increased exponentially over the past two years.

“The reservations, especially in spring and summer, piled up back to back,” said Brodbeck. “People begged and pleaded for a reservation because they wanted an event outside.”

The park division had approximately 10,000 park visitors in 2021, almost doubling the estimated 5,400 people attending reserved gatherings in 2019. These numbers only count the people based on reservations. Residents who visited the park to walk, relax, or play sports were not counted.

“We got a lot of feedback from residents,” said Recreation Director Karen Zimmerman. “I just got a letter from a family thanking me in 2020. They explored each of our parks, they either rode bicycles or walked the trails. Our paths became extremely popular in 2020 and continued in 2021. “

The Montgomery Parks and Recreation Department has worked throughout the pandemic to not only clean and sanitize parking spaces between visits, but also to meet demand for park gatherings, which has nearly doubled in the past two years.

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the Montgomery Open Space DepartmentT also knows the value of local green spaces and has been committed to preserving them for years. The Open Space Committee was founded in 1989 at the height of a development boom that began in the 1980s. Their goal was to preserve the local land after finding that farmland was quickly being bought up and developed.

Today around 39 percent of the township has been preserved.

“That is an all-encompassing number,” says Open Space coordinator Wasilauski, “including our active parks. They have baseball fields or softball fields or cricket fields. This also includes our properties, which in my opinion are more “open space”, where we have no active recreation, i.e. where we may only have a path or a picnic area. And that includes preserved arable land, most of which is still privately owned. “

The long-term goal of the Open Space Department is that residents can walk from one end of the city to the other, starting on Sauerland mountain reserve and extends to Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. â– 

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