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Plants, Parks, and Mental Health

By Rebecca Koblin | December 29, 2021

Whether walking through the park, hiking a local trail, or caring for indoor plants, nature will boost just about everyone’s mental health.

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

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen park usage explode,” she said. Visitors come to walk the trails, exercise, socialize with friends and family, and just be around nature.

Ice skating in Montgomery Township, NJ, by Barbara A. Preston
A Montgomery rite of passage: Ice skating on Mill Pond off Dead Tree Road. What could be more exhilarating? Photo by Barbara A. Preston.

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

Many people attribute improved mental health to time spent in nature or with plants, but what they don’t know is that this claim is actually supported by research.

According to Rutgers University Professor of Horticultural Therapy and Agricultural Extension Agent Joel Flagler: “For centuries we’ve known 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 patient healing.

This therapy is “facilitated by a registered horticultural therapist or other professionals with training in the use of horticulture as a therapeutic modality to support program goals,” according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

Professor Flagler has been involved with horticultural therapy for more than 40 years and contributes many mental health benefits to working with plants.

“We’ve always been creatures of nature. Only within the last 200 years have we thought of ourselves as above nature. Even today we still depend on plants for all of our needs,” Professor Flagler said. “Natural rhythms are so critical. It can be as simple as: Because we have plants on our windowsill, we are more conscious of the movement of the sun throughout the day.”

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

Professor Flagler says natural rhythms create an awareness and a sense of predictability. “We know the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. We know that after winter comes spring and warm weather follows the cold. We even know that if we plant a seed, water it and care for it, a flower will grow,” he said. [See related article on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).]

With these natural rhythms come have predictable outcomes, Professor Flagler said, and this is especially important during “a time when people are feeling, more than ever, that everything is so unpredictable.”

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

“Having the physical plants around you in your home is really important,” Altman said, “because having the greenery in your space has a physiological effect of lowering blood pressure, improving breathing, and, that in turn, has an effect on your mental health.”

Science Daily and research done by the University of East Anglia support this claim, stating that “exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.”

“For someone who is feeling anxious, going out into a garden and spending time there, it’s familiar, it’s peaceful, it’s calming,” Altman said, “there is some research that suggests that even artificial plants might 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 relieve stress, it is also an opportunity to socialize and connect with the community.

The Montgomery Township Parks and Recreation Department oversees 12 different parks throughout Belle Mead, Blawenburg, Griggstown, Harlingen, Rocky Hill, and Skillman. According to Administrative Assistant Suzanne Brodbeck, reservations for park space have increased exponentially over the past two years.

“The reservations, especially in the spring and summer, were stacked back-to-back,” Brodbeck said. “People were begging and pleading to have a reservation because they wanted to have an event outside.”

The parks department had about 10,000 park attendees during 2021, nearly doubling the estimated 5,400 people who attended reserved gatherings in 2019. These numbers are only counting people based on reservations. Residents who visited the park to walk, relax, or exercise were not counted.

“We received a lot of feedback from residents,” said Recreation Director Karen Zimmerman, “I just came across a letter I received from a family in 2020 thanking us. They went exploring each of our parks, they would either ride bikes or walk the pathways. Our pathways became extremely popular in 2020 and it continued in 2021.”

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

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The Montgomery Open Space Department also knows the value of local greenspace and has been working to preserve it for years. The Open Space Committee was formed in 1989 at the height of a development boom that began in the 1980s. Their goal was to help preserve local land after noticing that farmland was being quickly bought up and developed.

Today, about 39 percent of the township has been preserved.

“That is an all-encompassing number,” said Open Space Coordinator Wasilauski, “so that includes our parks that are active. They have baseball fields or softball fields, or cricket fields. It also includes our properties that I consider more ‘open space,’ where we don’t have active recreation, so where we might just have a trail or picnic area. And it also includes preserved farmland, which is predominantly still privately owned.”

The long-term goal of the Open Space Department is for residents to be able to walk from one end of the town to the other, beginning at the Sourland Mountain Preserve and extending all the way to the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. ■


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