Physical Health Benefits of Vertical Gardening

Vertical gardening has two obvious advantages for horticultural therapy: accessibility (because it allows gardening to be undertaken at any height, and intensity, because it allows more to be grown in a smaller space because you can grow up or down rather than outwards.

There are many other potentially more important therapeutic advantages though - both for the psychology and the physical well being of the individual.

Air quality

Plants can improve air quality. Plants use carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis to create their food stores. In doing so, they release oxygen which, of course, we need for respiration. At night, they don’t photosynthesise but they do release carbon dioxide from respiration. At one time hospitals stopped using plants because it was considered that they depleted oxygen at night which could affect the health of patients. However, they only release tiny amounts of carbon dioxide and use up tiny amounts of oxygen during respiration and over a twenty four hour cycle they release more oxygen than carbon dioxide. Therefore, they are not detrimental to health from this perspective.

Plants are also known help to help filter harmful toxins from air both indoors (e.g. fumes from cooking, and chemicals released from paints, glues and other materials) and outdoors (e.g. carbon monoxide from car fumes, gases released by industry). These are absorbed into leaf pores, or stomata, along with carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. They also trap larger air-borne particles of dust in their leaf hairs to prevent them from entering their pores. This dust is often referred to as particulate matter and is linked to all sorts of respiratory diseases. In this way, plants act as natural air filters. Trees in urban environments are very useful in this regard.    

Asthma      

The presence of plants around buildings could be beneficial to asthma sufferers in that they can remove some toxins and other irritants from the air. However, asthma is caused by things that act as irritants and among them is pollen which comes from plants. For those asthma sufferers whose symptoms are triggered by pollen, which is a fairly common irritant among allergy and asthma sufferers, they may wish to choose plants which produce little or no pollen. In some plant species male flowers and female flowers are produced on separate plants. These are known as dioecious plants. They could look for female, or gynoecious, plants which don’t bear pollen.  Examples include holly, bay trees, date palms, poplars and junipers.  

Sleep

The mere presence of plants has a calming effect which helps to lower anxiety symptoms and stress levels. This, in itself is likely to help people to get to sleep more easily and perhaps to enjoy better quality sleep when they have plants in and around their environment. As mentioned previously, we can rule out their impact on oxygen levels. 

Some plants are also known to have value aiding sleep when used as medicinal herbs. For example, lavender is associated with promoting drowsiness and restful sleep and so it is often found in pillows and pouches and used in aromatherapy. Lavender is also a common ingredient in bath soaps and salts for its calmative effects too. Similarly, sachets of hops may also be placed inside pillow covers to assist with sleep. A tonic made from hops is also believed to have a sedative effect easing symptoms of anxiety and nervous arousal, and inducing sleep. Extracts of valerian are used as a natural sedative to promote sleep for those who have difficulties sleeping. Incorporating plants like these into green walls at hospitals or around bedrooms may have beneficial effects for problem sleepers.

 

Exercise

Although the mere inclusion of plants in and around our homes and other buildings appears to have a positive impact on health, we should not underestimate the importance of gardening and being involved with plants. Green space encourages physical activity. In a study by Giles-Cort (2005) in Perth, Western Australia it was found that green spaces which were deemed as attractive, e.g. birdlife, trees, water features, were more often used for walking. Also, those who used public green spaces were three times more likely to meet with recommended weekly exercise amounts than those who didn't.  
In the elderly, gardening can be used to exercise and strengthen muscles in different parts of the body. A skilled physiotherapist can prescribe horticultural activities that may be used to reactivate and strengthen damaged tissues, improve mobility and to slow down deterioration caused through degenerative diseases. It allows people with different levels of mobility to be involved in meaningful and creative activities, and if done with others there are also social benefits. Gardening can also help people recover from surgery.

Physical benefits include enhancing fine motor skills (use of our smaller bones and muscles) e.g. from handling secateurs or sowing seeds, increasing muscle strength and tone, increasing range of motion, and improving coordination and balance.

 

Medical complaints

The presence of green walls, roofs and urban spaces has been associated with reductions in the prevalence and frequency of diseases and medical complaints compared to less green environments.    

In the Netherlands study by Maas et al. (2009) highlighted earlier which analysed data from the medical records of GPs besides differences in mental health the authors found other notable differences in physical health including heart disease, chronic back and neck pain, migraine, diabetes and asthma.  In the study by De Vries et al. (2003) cited earlier the authors found that people living in urban environments with abundant green space reported better health than those who did not have access to such green spaces. This difference was especially noticeable for housewives, the elderly, and people of lower socioeconomic status.   In a Japanese study, Takano, Nakamura & Watanabe (2002) collected data over a five year period and reported that senior citizens who had access to space for taking walks, parks and tree-lined streets nearby had significantly better mortality rates regardless of their age, sex, marital status, or socioeconomic status, and their level of functioning at the beginning of the study. 

Landscapes which encourage people to participate in their community activities and develop a sense of place are also important for wellbeing. If people feel a sense of pride with where they live and are connected to it, they will look after it. Again, they encourage activity which indirectly can be linked to lowered mortality rates due to a reduction in obesity and cardiovascular diseases.