Discovering the Many Healthful Benefits of Gardening
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, as lockdowns put millions out of work and headlines forecast food shortages, anxious Americans picked up their rakes and spades.
Many people were cut off from social gatherings. They were worried about bare shelves and contaminated grocery stores. And they needed something to occupy schoolchildren.
In response, record numbers of people began cultivating coronavirus victory gardens. In a matter of weeks, seeds, seedlings, and fruit trees sold out online and in gardening centers.
As it turns out, the impulse to garden is actually a great idea — whether or not you’re coping with a crisis — because gardening is one of the healthiest hobbies you can develop. Keep reading to learn about the many benefits of gardening, for you and your community.
You’re more like a plant than you may realize. Your body is capable of photosynthesis — the process where plants make their own food using sunlight.
Your skin uses sunlight to make one of the nutrients you need: vitamin D. ResearchersTrusted Source estimate that a half hour in the sun can produce between 8,000 and 50,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D in your body, depending on how much your clothes cover and the color of your skin.
Vitamin D is essential for literally hundreds of body functions — strengthening your bones and your immune system are just two of them. StudiesTrusted Source have also shown that being out in the sun can help lower your risk of:
If your vitamin D levels are low, you have a greater risk of developing psoriasis flares, metabolic syndrome (a prediabetes condition), type II diabetes, and dementia, as well.
All of these factors have to be balanced against the risk of skin cancer from overexposure to the sun’s rays, of course. But the science is clear: A little sunshine in the garden goes a very long way in your body.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source says gardening is exercise. Activities like raking and cutting grass might fall under the category of light to moderate exercise, while shoveling, digging, and chopping wood might be considered vigorous exercise.
Either way, working in a garden uses every major muscle group in the body. This fact won’t surprise anyone who’s woken up sore after a day of yardwork.
Studies have found that the physical exertion of working in a garden may help offset both age-related weight gainTrusted Source and childhood obesityTrusted Source. And researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that people who garden are more likely to get a solid 7 hours of sleep at night.
Doctors have also known for some time that exercise improves cognitive functioning in the brain. There’s some debate about whether gardening on its own is enough to affect cognitive skills like memory. But new evidence shows that gardening activities may spur growth in your brain’s memory-related nerves.
Researchers in Korea gave 20-minute gardening activities to people being treated for dementia in an inpatient facility. After the residents had raked and planted in vegetable gardens, researchers discovered increased amounts of some brain nerve growth factors associated with memory in both males and females.
In a 2014 research review, analysts found that horticultural therapy — using gardening to improve mental health — may be an effective treatment for people with dementia.
In fact, in the Netherlands and Norway, people with dementia often participate in groundbreaking Greencare programs, where they spend a large part of the day working on farms and in gardens.
Studies in the United States and abroad have found that gardening improves your mood and increases your self-esteem. When people spend time in a garden, their anxiety levels drop and they feel less depressed.
In a multi-year study published in 2011Trusted Source, people with depression participated in a gardening intervention for 12 weeks. Afterward, researchers measured several aspects of their mental health, including depression symptoms, finding that all of them were significantly improved. And those improvements lasted for months after the intervention ended.
Working in a garden can help you recuperate if you’ve experienced something stressful.
In a 2011 study, researchers exposed study participants to a stressful activity. Then they asked half the group to spend time quietly reading and the other half to spend time gardening.
When researchers tested the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies, they found that the gardening group had recovered from the stress better than the reading group. The gardening group also reported that their moods had returned to a positive state — while fewer of the readers had.
Horticultural therapy has been around for millennia, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that working with plants is part of many addiction recovery programs.
In one study, researchers noted that plants provoked positive feelings in people recovering from alcohol addiction, and were an effective rehabilitation tool.
In another studyTrusted Source, people in an addiction rehabilitation program were given an opportunity to participate in natural recovery, where they were allowed to choose either art or gardening as their natural therapy. People who chose gardening completed the rehab program at a higher rate and reported a more satisfying experience than those who chose art.
School gardens, family gardens, and community gardens are sprouting everywhere. The reason these small local gardens are flourishing may have as much to do with human interaction as it does with the produce.
In one studyTrusted Source, students who participated in school gardens took photos of their work and shared what they experienced. Students reported that the skills they learned and relationships they formed gave them a sense of personal well-being.
Working in a garden with people of different ages, abilities, and backgrounds is a way to expand both what you know and who you know.
Tending to a young gardener?
Share these books with the growing readers in your life:
- “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
- “The Ugly Vegetables” by Grace Lin
- “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner
- “City Green” by DyAnne Disalvo-Ryan
You can find these books at your local library or bookstore, or order them online by clicking the above links.
Growing your own garden has, historically, been a way to resist injustice and claim space in a world that doesn’t always respond to your needs.
During the forced internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the American West, thousands of gardens sprang up behind the barbed wire enclosures. Stone gardens, vegetable gardens, ornamental landscapes with waterfalls and ponds — each cultivated to reclaim both land and cultural identity.
In an ecofeminist study entitled “Sisters of the Soil: Urban Gardening as Resistance in Detroit,” researcher Monica White describes the work of eight Black women who looked at gardening as a way to push back against “the social structures that have perpetuated inequality in terms of healthy food access,” allowing them “to create outdoor, living, learning, and healing spaces for themselves and for members of the community.”
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