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  • Writer's pictureMari Stuart

Gardening for Health

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

As a culture, we seem to be obsessed with wellness and nutrition. “Nutrient-dense” and “superfoods” are among the hottest food trends right now.

But you don’t have to fill up your shopping cart with expensive supplements and the latest exotic superfood powders to eat your way to health. One of the most potent factors that correlates with good health is right outside your back door: the garden.

Here are just some of the ways in which gardening contributes positively to your health:

  1. Exercise and time spent outdoors

  2. Exposure to beneficial, anti-depressant micro-organisms

  3. Fresh, nutrient-dense, toxin-free food

Exercise and time spent outdoors

Spending time in the garden means, by definition, spending time outside. Time spent outdoors, surrounded by greenery, has been shown to correlate positively with both physical and psychological health. Gardeners get exposed to sunlight and vitamin D simply by spending time in their garden. Gardening is also good exercise: whether you’re shoveling, pushing a wheelbarrow, or bending down to weed and harvest, you’re stretching, using your muscles, and increasing your heartbeat and circulation.

Tending something that takes a long time to grow, such as a vegetable crop or a fruit tree, and learning to grow some of our own food also gives us a sense of purpose. Lastly, if you’re gardening with others – trading seedlings with neighbors or working with others in a community garden – you gain a sense of community, which also correlates positively with good health.

Soil’s natural anti-depressant microbes

But gardening’s positive health effects go deeper than that – literally. New cutting-edge studies suggest that the very microbes in the soil may boost our immune systems and mental health. As Daphne Miller (M.D.), the author of Farmacology, writes:

“Gardening is my Prozac. The time I dedicate to training tomato vines or hacking at berry bushes seems to help me stave off feelings of sadness or dread and calm the chatter in my mind.”

Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae activates the release of brain serotonin, which in turn reduces stress.

But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, Dr. Miller says, it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems. The recent increase in many chronic diseases seems to be related to the modern microbe phobia and the anti-bacterial armament in our homes, schools, and even clothing. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we have evolved with, and that we seem to need for our well-being.

Gardening can significantly increase our exposure to these beneficial micro-organisms. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm – and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce may be one of the best things you can do for your health.

Fresh, nutrient-dense, toxin-free food

We know that the nutrient and vitamin content of food is going down worldwide. At least one culprit is industrial, chemical-heavy agriculture, which has stripped the soils of their minerals and nutrients. In contrast, farms and gardens that are constantly building humus (soil organic matter) are proving to yield improved nutrition.

In your own garden, you get to decide how the soil is managed. Regular applications of good compost, covering the soil with mulch, and minimizing rototilling all help to maintain and increase the level of humus in the soil. You can also know for sure that your food is free of chemicals and safe to eat. No organic certification necessary, as long as you keep chemicals out of your garden!

Lastly, food harvested from the garden is more likely to have more nutrients because it is usually eaten fresh. As soon as a plant is harvested, it begins to wilt and lose its nutrient value. The much-touted broccoli, for example, starts to lose its cancer-fighting compounds within 24 hours of harvest. So to really get the benefits, you’ll want to buy it at the local farmers’ market – or better yet, harvest your own in the garden!

Five tips for the Health-boosting Garden:

  1. Prepare foods as soon as possible after harvesting.

  2. Look for vegetable and fruit varieties that are closer to the wild plant ancestors – that haven’t been bred simply for size and productivity. Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side lists varieties, from tomatoes to lettuce to garlic, that have more phytonutrients, or polyphenols.

  3. Eat a rainbow. Usually, the more pigmentation and flavor, the more nutrients a vegetable will have. Think red, purple, orange, yellow, and dark green.

  4. Don’t scrub or peel your produce too compulsively! You’re getting rid of the part that’s best for you (the peel and, yes, little bits of dirt – the kind that’s good for you).

  5. Include berries in your landscape and on your plate! They are easy to grow, high in antioxidants and vitamins, and everyone (including kids) seems to like them.

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