With the sudden advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, our lives have been turned upside down. We now find ourselves mandated to stay inside and self-isolation has become the new normal, creating a nation of house-bound people looking for ways to keep their minds occupied and away from the news reports.

While we weather the storm of the coronavirus, many of us are acutely aware of anxiety. Managing our mental health is equally as important as maintaining our physical health. What we choose to do now to foster positive energy can make a difference between finding peace and connection versus living in fear and in solitude.

One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to go outside — getting fresh air and exercise is crucial for mind, body, and soul, provided we practice social distancing. Spring’s arrival this week could not be better timed: the landscape will soon be brimming with texture and color, giving us all something to look forward to. Our society may be on pause for a few months; however, Nature does not wait, giving us the perfect opportunity to connect with her when we need it the most.

With the announcement of many local businesses closing, it’s easy to become discouraged, but the good news is that nurseries and garden centers are considered “essential businesses,” oases in the high desert for gardeners. Getting back into the garden is a form of therapy that we could all use right now. Aside from reducing stress levels, any gardener will tell you that weeding, tending to the soil, planting, and deadheading flowers are all actions that produce a calming effect. Just putting your hands in soil can do this, thanks to a specific soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, which triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. Known as “the happy chemical,” serotonin is a natural anti-depressant that also strengthens the immune system, and a deficiency can lead to depression.

The idea of gardening as therapy is not a new concept. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a physician known as the “Father of American Psychiatry,” documented the positive effects gardening had on mentally-ill patients. In the 20th century, the practice of therapy gardening was offered to World War II veterans who, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, brought the practice into further acceptance to cope with anxiety and physical ailments.

Today, horticultural therapy is no longer limited to the mentally ill; it is a proven technique used in a variety of rehabilitative, vocational, and com-munity settings. Horticultural therapy clinics can be found in nursing homes, rehab facilities, nurseries, botanical gardens, prisons, schools, retirement centers, and intentional communities. The documented positive effects are numerous: deeper concentration, increased stamina, better hand-eye coordination, improved motor skills, a more positive attitude, and a blocking or reducing of stressful thoughts are all associated with gardening. Connection is another result, people working together on a shared goal in nature creates a sense of ownership, community and purpose.

Northern New Mexico’s plentiful snowfall provided some well-deserved moisture for a hopeful garden season — but it has also created a fertile ground for weeds. Instead of looking at weeding as the dreaded annual task, it could be an opportunity for families with children to work together on a project. Putting the tablets down, walking away from social media and CNN, and stepping outside into nature already sounds more fun. Removing these small garden nuisances together is a way to connect and can be educational for children. Teaching them that soil can make you happy is a great start.

With trips to the grocers becoming more of a risk for contracting the coronavirus, growing your own vegetables at home is a smart move. Cold-hardy vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, leeks, and radishes can be planted now provided the ground is not frozen. Doing this together as a family can be a game-changer. When moods are low and stress is high, the shift from anxiety to connection and purpose is something everyone can be happy about. Children never forget their first garden, that’s why as adults we keep planting them.

Carole A. Langrall has been in the floriculture industry for over 20 years, from working with South American flower growers to opening floral event studios in Santa Fe and Baltimore. As a Master Gardener, she educates and lectures on the importance of native plants, beautification projects and environmental art. She is available for demonstrations, classes and special events. Contact her at: www.flowerspy.com

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