Gardening for Health
Did you know April is Garden Month? Spring is coming on strong (as apparent by my allergies), and if you haven’t yet begun thinking about this year’s plantings, it’s time to start!
Gardens don’t have to be large, so even if you live on a small plot in the city or only have a windowsill to spare, you can still enjoy the benefits of gardening. You can plant flowers, herbs, vegetables or both. Gardens can be anywhere, and anyone can garden!
If you are looking to plant vegetables, now is the time to start your cold hardy varieties as they will tolerate colder spring days and will wilt or bolt if planted too close to hotter summer days: spinach, Brussel’s sprouts, radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, sugar snap peas, bok choy, arugula, leeks, onions, garlic, carrots, beets, and broccoli.
Benefits of gardening (in no order):
Increasing microbiome diversity
Digging in the dirt is good for you. Those who are exposed to a lot of other people (children, parents, siblings or friends), pets, or living on or near a farm, tend to have lower rates of immune system defects than those who live in small social circles or in cities1. This diversity is important throughout life, and a healthy gut microbiome helps us balance our immune system, mood, and cognitive health, as well as increase our vitality by supplying us with needed vitamins and minerals. Any time you are gardening whether raking leaves, planting bulbs, or growing food, the dirt you get on and under your nails and skin will benefit you. The bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, for example, is very common in garden dirt, and it has been shown to help with easing allergies, asthma, psoriasis, and more.
We want to ensure that our soil is as healthy as possible so that our plants and foods are able to take in healthy nutrients (which soil microbes help with). Chicken or other manure, worm castings, or kelp fertilizer are some of the options to help keep your soil microbe dense providing you with a natural organic product.
Superior taste and nutrient density
When grown under optimal conditions for soil, water, and sun, then our flowers, vegetables, and herbs will be more vibrant. Fresh cut flowers last longer when put right away into a vase full of water than anything you buy at the farmers market or store. As stated above, microbes help plants uptake nutrients, so the longer a plant is grown before harvesting, the more nutrients it can absorb. Grocery store foods are picked prior to the peak of ripeness so they do not rot in transit or in the store prior to purchase. Once picked, fruits, herbs and vegetables consume their own nutrients to stay viable decreasing the vitamin content substantially over time. The longer said food is stored, the fewer nutrients will be available for you. When grown in your own back yard, your food has a practically non-existent travel time compared to anything you can buy so will be more nutrient dense, not only that, but you can control the growing method and storage time.
Easy access leads to increase consumption
Adults who grow their own produce consume more fruits and veggies, according to research from the American Journal of Public Health. Even kids, who tend to be the pickiest eaters, eat more greens and other vegetables when a garden is implemented in their school, community, or after-school setting, based on a review from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics2.
Gardening is a great exercise and benefits heart health
Gardening is a healthy form of exercise when done in moderation (I’ve done it too much a time or two, and that’s hard on your back!). A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that both men and women who regularly garden had significantly lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than those who don’t4. In fact, the American Council on Exercise reports that gardening burns about 300 calories an hour where walking fast only burns about 230 calories an hour. With the exercise and stress benefits, gardening has been shown to lower blood pressure, and a 12-year Swedish study of 4000 adults, they showed that regular gardening can cut stroke and heart attack risk up to 30% for those over 605! Be mindful when using gardening as exercise to not do too many repetitive movements as that can cause injuries.
Gardening is a great stress reliever and is important for overall wellbeing
A meta-analysis of 22 different studies published in Preventive Medicine Reports found that gardening is significantly associated with reductions in depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as increases in happiness. In addition, Dutch researchers found that gardening can also fight stress better than other relaxing leisure activities like reading3. A garden can also improve your overall wellbeing by as it can serve as a tranquil retreat or private escape from the demands of your life. A bountiful harvest provides a sense of achievement and pride. Not only does gardening build confidence and self-esteem, but when your harvest is shared with others, it’s also a delightful experience. My family has wonderful, shared experiences of eating fresh raspberries in our hammock at sunset.
Cognitive benefits of gardening
A daily dose of gardening has been shown by the Medical Journal of Australia to reduce risk of dementia by 36%, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account6. According to The Alzheimer’s Society, exercising in the garden helps develop the appetite, boost energy levels, and promote a better night’s sleep. Gardening uses a variety of cognitive skills at the same time including problem solving, sensory awareness, strength, endurance, and dexterity.
Gardening Helps You “Get Your D”
As I wrote about in Vitamin D Optimization, an estimated 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, a nutrient essential for bone health, immunity, hormone signaling, blood sugar balancing and much more. Gardening can get you out in the sun which is by far the best source for vitamin D absorption. Be mindful, however, of your overall time in the sun compared to your bodies ability to tan. If you are out longer than the time your body gets pink then you’ll want to protect your skin with long sleeved clothes, a hat, sunglasses, and potentially even an organic zinc oxide sunscreen.
Gardening is a great way to get outside, see birds, bees, and other natural sites. It’s a way to evoke conversations with neighbors and bathe in nature. Be prepared for a little mess as young children will be especially curious and want to dig in the dirt, look for worms and other bugs, and squish stuff between their fingers and toes.
Bottom line is, whether you have a single pot or an entire yard to work with, gardening is one of the healthiest and most rewarding activities out there. What are you waiting for? Join the 1 in 3 Americans who garden. And it’s easier than you think: Even if you have very little space or experience, you can start out with just a few houseplants or garden in containers. Instead of a Netflix binge next weekend, try getting down and dirty in your backyard.
- Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System by Jack Gilbert (Author), Rob Knight
- Those who garden and do home repairs can reduce heart and stroke risk – UPI.com
- 10 reasons gardening is good for you | | qctimes.com
- 5 Health Benefits of Gardening and Planting (aarp.org)
Other great sources:
Building Soils Naturally. This book is written for home gardeners who are interested in growing nutrient-dense food. There’s background information and some science, but all with a view to let you know why we do the things we do in the organic garden. Most of the information is very hands-on, letting you know what to do, and when and how to do it.
The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food. This is one of those organic gardening books that shows you how to select, grow, harvest, and store many varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and nuts. Not all that much info on growing from seed and transplanting, but a pretty darn big encyclopedia of food plants and good information on vegetable garden layout.
How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. This book played a part in changing food production methods, bringing biointensive organic gardening methods to people all over the world who want to feed more people with less land. It’s a bit dated and not the most fun book to read, and it’s more complicated than square foot gardening, so it’s definitely for people who want to spend the extra time necessary to grow a lot of food in a little space.
Wild Fermentation. Not really an organic vegetable gardening book, but a book on what to do with many of your veggies when you harvest them. For thousands of years humans have enjoyed the taste and nutrition of fermented foods and drinks. He has experimented with many forms of fermentation and has developed and collected a wide range of techniques and recipes from around the world. I have had success with many methods in this book.
Erin Williams, MSN CN LMP, is the founder of EZBalance.com, a health and wellness company established in 2001. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Purdue, a master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University, and is currently studying to become a Functional Medicine Practitioner. Erin enjoys sharing her love of natural health and wellness with people through lectures, blogs, and consultations.