Garden produce provides nutritional benefits, but the very act of digging in the dirt nurtures mind, body, and soul.
What if some of life’s greatest truths could be revealed by caring for a plot of vegetables? What if much of what we need for well-being could be found in a small patch of soil?
OK, a garden won’t solve all of life’s challenges. You still have to pay the mortgage and go to the dentist. But a garden does afford treasures beyond the fall harvest or a splash of color along a walkway. Tending a garden can boost health and illuminate life’s wonders.
“I don’t have to be anything when I’m in my garden,” says Becky Mack, a 40-year-old facility space planner whose Kansas City, Mo., front yard is a wild palette of vegetation. Ornamental grasses, anemone, and marigolds rub shoulders with Swiss chard and peppers, while moonflower and Spanish flag clamber a trellis anchored in a patch of strawberries and bush beans.
“My friends say I’m very creative in my garden, but I don’t feel creative,” she says. “It’s almost like something instinctual takes over and I get swept up in the force of it. Like it’s not me doing it. The garden is doing it to me.”
For many of us, a kind of magic arises in the garden. The hard edges of life seem to soften as shapes, colors, and textures — rounded shrubs, bright bunching blooms, sprays of variegated foliage — work their way into the psyche. Moods lift after just a short time among plants and soil. The garden possesses a rhythm tied to the weather and the seasons, and a connection to all living things, including other people.
None of this surprises the research community that, for the past 30 years, has been working to quantify the benefits of being outdoors. From sunlight triggering vitamin D synthesis to soil strengthening our immune systems and even lightening our moods through microbes, science is learning the many ways nature supports our health. Meanwhile, food activists tout gardening as a powerful way to reestablish our relationship with nature and the source of our food.
Gardening can be an intimidating proposition, of course. There’s much to consider, including soil quality, water drainage, fertilizers, pests, plant diseases, and weather. Nonetheless, just about anyone can grow a little something (see “Gardening for Beginners” below), and it is worth the effort. Here are five ways a garden can nourish your entire life.
The Healing Garden
“How deeply seated in the human heart is the liking for gardens and gardening.” — Alexander Smith, Scottish essayist and poet
A surprising number of human maladies are alleviated by time spent outside. In a recent Dutch experiment, researchers found that 30 minutes of gardening not only improved test subjects’ moods, but also reduced their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Other studies have shown healing benefits of gardening for elderly people with dementia and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Gardening may also decrease the severity of many mental-health conditions, including anxiety and depression, by engaging what researchers call “effortless attention.” This quiet mental state provides much of a garden’s healing power, says Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, a researcher in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
“Being in nature supports our capacity for reflective thinking,” says Faber Taylor. “When we spend time in a natural setting like a garden, we’re able to think beyond the moment and do a little problem solving. There is something therapeutic about just deadheading flowers.”
There is something therapeutic about soil, as well. When researchers at the University of Bristol in England injected mice with Mycobacterium vaccae, bacteria commonly found in dirt, the mice’s immune systems responded by triggering the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Further research indicates that exposure to M. vaccae may enhance cognitive function and improve learning, too. (For more on the immune-supportive powers of dirt, see “Dirt, Germs and Other Friendly Filth“.)
Digging for Wisdom
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” — Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Gardens have much to teach, and not just about flowers. Their first lesson is about relinquishing perfectionism. After dealing with inevitable weeds and pests or the plants that just won’t grow, gardeners soon loosen their attachment to specific outcomes.
“Once we abandon perfection, in the garden or anywhere, a lot of things happen,” says Craig Chalquist, PhD, East-West Psychology department chair at the California Institute of Integral Studies. “We get more experimental. We’re open to learning new things.”
Gardens teach patience, because plants are unmoved by our demand for instant gratification. And each time new buds push through the decay of last year’s garden, we understand that nature never stops with death.
“When we fail to appreciate the whole cycle, we hold on to attitudes that don’t serve us anymore,” says Chalquist. “The lesson of death and decay in the garden is that we may be holding on to something in our lives that we should let go of so there can be renewal.”
The Garden Workout
“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.” —Rudyard Kipling, “The Glory of the Garden”
With all that digging and raking, reaching and squatting, your muscles will tell you that a day in the dirt is a workout for the body as well as the mind.
“The act of gardening strengthens everything,” says Stacy Best, a registered kinesiotherapist, master gardener, and holistic health coach based in Fort Wright, Ky. Turning soil with a spade, for example, engages stabilizing muscles in the lower abdomen and strengthens biceps and triceps. Tiptoeing through the tulips to reach the hedge beyond improves balance and coordination, while lunging and extending to prune or weed brings increased flexibility.
And as with any workout, form is critical. “You have to make sure you’re using proper biomechanics,” says Best, whose first recommendation is to avoid bending at the waist in order to prevent lower-back pain. She also advises a five-minute warm-up before digging in, and stretching afterward — especially the hamstrings and lower back — to reduce that next-day soreness.
Fresh From the Garden
“The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations.” —Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Vegetables just don’t come any fresher or more local than straight out of one’s own garden. And growing your own food can provide nutrition not available at the supermarket.
“Gardeners have more choices,” says Jo Robinson, a health writer and food activist whose 2013 book, Eating on the Wild Side, identifies more-nutrient-dense varieties of everyday fruits and vegetables. “Seed catalogs may offer 10 varieties of spinach or 30 varieties of lettuce. You’re not stuck with just what you find in the store.” (For more on Robinson’s book, see “A Field Guide to Nutritious Food“.)
A garden doesn’t just allow you to grow more flavorful and curious varieties of lettuce, either. Homegrown veggies have time on their side. Many vegetables can offer their peak nutritional yield only when eaten within a couple of hours of harvest.
“Some of the most nutritious vegetables we can eat spoil very rapidly,” Robinson says, noting that once they’re harvested, vegetables like broccoli and greens continue to “breathe,” burning up the sugar and antioxidants they’ve stored. By the time that organic asparagus makes it cross-country to your neighborhood market, it’s lost most of its flavor and nutritional potency. But when vegetables travel only the 25 feet between your yard and your kitchen counter, you get the very best they have to offer.
Out of the Backyard and Into the World
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” —Mahatma Gandhi
Even apartment dwellers can reap gardening’s myriad benefits by joining forces with a community garden.
Community gardens and small-scale urban farms provide opportunities for gardeners to cultivate not only fresh produce, but also deeper relationships with neighbors. And since fresh produce isn’t reliably available in all neighborhoods, loaning your muscle to a community garden or urban farm that shares the harvest is a real win-win. (To locate a community garden near you, visit the website for the American Community Gardening Association: http://communitygardening.org.)
“Food is power,” says Robin Emmons, founder and executive director of Sow Much Good, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting social justice through access to fresh-grown food. “Food has the ability to heal you, make you whole, give you vibrant energy and long life.”
Emmons’s organization runs an urban “micro-farm” in Charlotte, N.C., tended by volunteers who grow and sell affordable, chemical-free produce to people living in areas lacking access to fresh food. In addition to the satisfaction of serving others, volunteers experience all the health benefits of digging in the dirt.
“They’re getting vitamin D; they’re getting exercise. It’s a joy to be out there on the land,” says Emmons. “This is a chance to do something they love and give back.”
Q&A: Overcoming Nature-Deficit Disorder
Human health may be integrally connected to our relationship with the outdoors. Author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, journalist Richard Louv explains the human costs of “nature-deficit disorder.”
Experience Life | When did we start losing our connection to nature?
Richard Louv | It began with the invention of agriculture and was exacerbated by the industrial revolution, but it has accelerated exponentially in the past 30 years. As our lives become immersed in technology, and as parents become more fearful — thanks largely to 24-hour news cycles that give the impression that the world is more dangerous than it is — we have a whole generation that has gone indoors.
EL | Does nature-deficit disorder affect adults as well as children?
RL | I came up with that term when I was writing a book about the disconnect between children and nature. I was reviewing the research of Andrea Faber Taylor and colleagues at the University of Illinois demonstrating reduced symptoms of ADHD and other conditions in children and adults who spend time in natural settings. While not a medical diagnosis, nature-deficit disorder is a metaphor for something affecting people of all ages. (Read an excerpt of Louv’s Last Child in the Woods at “Nature-Deficit Disorder“.)
EL | How can we overcome it?
RL | Get outside. There has been research on the benefits of “green exercise,” showing that people who take their exercise outdoors feel significantly less depressed, less tense, less angry, and less fatigued than those who stick to the treadmill.
Photography by Andrea Bricco; Styling/Illustration by Alicia Buszczak