Start Gardening in Korea for Mental Health

Do you love houseplants, growing your own tomatoes, and learning about the world around you? Taking up gardening in South Korea may improve your mood and help you feel at home.

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My Experience Gardening in South Korea

Gardening changed my relationship with life in South Korea. I’ve always had the theory about getting in the dirt. I believe touching the earth and nature helps us all build a sense of belonging and place. When I moved to South Korea I found myself needing that connection more than ever.

I love stacked gardens for the patio.

I knew that I needed to do more than just drink coffee and visit tourist attractions if I ever wanted to feel at home in the Korean culture. I needed to understand the roots of society. Therefore, this brought me back to the ‘live-off-the-land’ roots I grew up with in Alaska. Then, I turned to gardening to give my life in Korea more context.

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When we first started prepping our front yard.

When we started our garden in 2013, Korea didn’t have resources for ex-pats interested in growing their own food so we have loved building up that aspect of the ex-pat community. We co-founded the Expat Gardening ROK Facebook group to help everyone pool information.

In this post, I want to help prepare you for your ex-pat gardening journey. We will walk through many struggles ex-pats face and connect you to some resources. Always remember, the struggles in life provide the connections and context for relationships and community. Leaning into the challenge of gardening as a community may help you find more joy in life.

Mental Health Benefits of Gardening

Before we get into the struggles you may face as an ex-pat gardener, let’s start with the good stuff. Gardening can have numerous mental health benefits, including:

  1. Reducing stress: Gardening can be a great way to unwind and reduce stress. Spending time in nature and working with plants can help lower cortisol levels and promote relaxation.
  2. Improving mood: Gardening can also help improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with growing your own plants and seeing them thrive can be a great mood booster.
  3. Increasing mindfulness: Gardening requires focus and attention to detail, which can promote mindfulness and help you stay present in the moment.
  4. Providing a sense of purpose: Gardening can provide a sense of purpose and meaning, particularly for those who may feel isolated or disconnected. Taking care of plants and watching them grow can be a fulfilling experience.
  5. Encouraging physical activity: Gardening can also be a form of physical activity, which has numerous mental health benefits, including reducing anxiety and depression.

Overall, gardening can be a great way to promote mental health and well-being, providing a sense of purpose, reducing stress, improving mood, increasing mindfulness, and encouraging physical activity.

Our favorite watering system in the summer.

Common Expat Gardening Issues

As an ex-pat, gardening can be both an exciting and frustrating experience. You will likely feel frustrated at first and have quite a few failures along the way. That’s what makes it all worth it in the end. There is nothing better than that first tomato or eggplant you get to pick and eat right off the vine.

We had to learn a lot about sourcing supplies. We also need a car since we live in a rural area.

If you also love that feeling of getting your hands dirty, then let’s talk about what you need to overcome. The following challenges were all identified each season by ex-pats gardening in South Korea. You may or may not struggle with the same issues, but know they may exist:

Culture-Related Gardening Issues

  1. Language Barrier: Non-Korean-speaking ex-pats may find it challenging to communicate with local gardeners or ask for advice on gardening techniques. However, don’t let this stop you. Groups like Expat Gardening ROK can help bridge the gap.
  2. Cultural Differences: Gardening practices can vary widely from country to country. An ex-pat may need to adjust expectations and approach to gardening to fit in with local customs and practices. Many ex-pat Korean gardeners have lost either part of their garden (or their entire garden) to a neighborhood grandmother who dug it up or killed crops. Expect to have both good and bad experiences as you learn about the local culture.
  3. Access to Supplies: Expats may find it difficult to find culturally-familiar gardening supplies in their new country. This can include tools, seeds, and fertilizers. You may want to invest in a small vehicle if you plan to do gardening for a while.
  4. Land Constraints: Ex-pats living in urban environments may not have access to a garden or have limited space for gardening. This can make it challenging to grow plants and limit the variety of plants that can be grown. Even in the countryside, you may have limits to where you can garden.

Tangible Gardening Issues

  1. Climate: Depending on where an ex-pat is living, they may find that the climate is very different from what they are used to. This can make it difficult to know what types of plants will thrive in their new environment and how to care for them properly. Additionally, Korea has a variety of climates and growing seasons throughout the country so you need to get to know your own area.
    Seoul’s planting season will be different from Busan’s planting season.
  2. Soil: Similarly, soil conditions may be vastly different from what the ex-pat is used to. Some soils may be too sandy, too clay-like, or too acidic for certain plants to grow well. We found that healthy soil in South Korea looked a lot different from the soil back home. We also found that our soil needs to be cared for in ways we weren’t familiar with.
  3. Watering: Watering can also be a challenge. Expats may need to adjust to different watering schedules depending on the climate and type of plants they are growing. We had to come up with some very creative solutions for keeping our garden watered while we were gone for the weekend or on VERY hot summer days.
  4. Pests and Diseases: Different countries may have different types of pests and diseases that can damage plants. Therefore, expats may need to learn how to identify and treat these issues in their new environment. A lot of the group posts in Expat Gardening ROK are folks trying to figure out what is eating or killing their plants.
We even had a hydroponics system on the patio for a number of years.

Common Korean Rooftop Garden Issues

Rooftop gardening in Korea can face several challenges due to the unique climate and environmental conditions. Some of the problems of rooftop gardening in Korea are:

  1. Extreme temperatures: The Korean climate can be very hot and humid in summer, and very cold in winter, which can make it difficult to grow certain plants on rooftops.
  2. Limited space: Rooftops are often limited in size, which can make it challenging to grow a variety of plants or to grow enough to meet the needs of a household.
  3. Wind exposure: Rooftop gardens are often exposed to strong winds, which can damage or destroy plants, particularly those with fragile stems.
  4. Water management: Rooftop gardens require a reliable water source, as well as proper drainage to prevent water damage to the building.
  5. Weight limits: Rooftop gardens can be heavy, and buildings need to be structurally sound to support the weight of the soil, plants, and any structures such as raised beds or trellises.
  6. Pesticides and pollution: Rooftops can be more susceptible to pollution and pesticide exposure, which can harm plants and reduce the quality of the produce grown.

Proper planning, preparation, and maintenance can help overcome these challenges and ensure a successful rooftop garden. Don’t let the early failures or struggles get you down, keep trying. Let’s get inspired by checking out the following amazing rooftop garden in Korea:

Common Korean Patio Garden Issues

Patio gardens in Korea can also face some challenges due to the limited space and environmental conditions. Here are some issues with patio gardens in Korea:

Fresh garden salads all summer.
  1. Limited space: Patios in Korea are often small, which can limit the types and quantity of plants that can be grown.
  2. Sun exposure: Many patios in Korea may not receive enough sunlight due to their orientation or being blocked by tall buildings, which can limit plant growth and yield.
  3. Water management: Patio gardens require proper drainage and a reliable water source to prevent water damage to the building and ensure healthy plant growth.
  4. Pesticides and pollution: Like rooftop gardens, patio gardens can also be susceptible to pollution and pesticide exposure, which can harm plants and reduce the quality of produce.
  5. Soil quality: Soil quality can be an issue in urban areas due to pollution and lack of organic matter. This can lead to poor plant growth and yield.

Overall, while patio gardening in Korea can be a great way to grow plants in urban areas, it can face challenges related to limited space, sun exposure, water management, wind exposure, pesticides and pollution, and soil quality. Proper planning, selection of appropriate plants, soil amendment, and maintenance can help overcome these challenges and ensure a thriving patio garden.

Let’s get inspired by checking out the following amazing balcony garden in Korea:

Want to Help Others Garden?

You can go work at Barefoot Gardens if you don’t have the time or space to garden at home. An ex-pat-managed commercial garden, Barefoot Gardens welcomes the community to help with the preparation, maintenance, and harvesting of their crops. where you can go help with the crops each year. In return, you often get fed and taken care of for the day. This is an awesome way to build community and learn more about gardening in Korea. You can find Barefoot Gardens on Facebook. Go follow them and get involved.

For example, Barefoot Gardens offered this awesome farm day in 2021:

The weather is looking pretty good this Saturday 👨‍🌾 if you’d like to volunteer please send us a message. We’ll be tending to our organic soil, mixing in fresh compost to kickstart all the biodiversity before planting season.

Barefoot Garden’s Facebook Page

Need Help with Your Korean Garden?

Of course, you don’t have to solve your gardening issues on your own. There are a few different gardening groups to help international residents in South Korea get their hands dirty. The gardening groups tend to be filled with amazing information and wonderful people ready to help you have a successful harvest.

Additional Information About Gardening in Korea

However, don’t take my word for it! Here are more posts about gardening in South Korea