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.

  • Outdoor gardening can help your body fight disease

    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 DResearchers 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. Studies 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.

  • Gardening builds strength, promotes sleep, and helps you maintain a healthy weight

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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 gain and childhood obesity. 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.

  • Gardening can help protect your memory as you get older

    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.

  • Gardening is a mood booster

    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 2011, 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.

  • Gardening calms you after stressful events

    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.

  • Gardening is an effective tool if you’re recovering from addiction

    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 study, 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.

  • Family and community gardens foster feelings of connection

    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 study, 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:

    You can find these books at your local library or bookstore, or order them online by clicking the above links.

  • Gardening can give you a sense of agency and empowerment

    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.”

    As they plowed neglected land and cultivated crops in the midst of barren food deserts, these gardeners were simultaneously improving their own health outcomes, fighting against unresponsive corporate food suppliers, and building a sense of self-determination.

    Read more about gardening from authors of color

    You can find these books at your local library or bookstore, or order them online by clicking the above links.

    If you’re looking for a way to combat inequities in the food system — or any injustice in your own life — you can begin with this powerful act: Grow something of your own.

  • Gardening can help you manage ecoanxiety

    The American Psychological Association echoes the findings of numerous researchers: For many people, watching the gradual, unchecked effects of climate change is increasing daily stress levels and creating a burdensome sense of guilt.

    One of the most difficult aspects of this ecoanxiety? Researchers say it’s the feeling that you’re powerless to do anything about it.

    To combat the negative health effects of ecoanxiety, you can garden with the aim of mitigating climate change. The National Wildlife Foundation recommends these actions if you want to cut carbon on your own — and in doing so, cut down on your own environmental anxiety:

    • Use manual tools instead of gas-powered ones.
    • Use drip lines, rain barrels, and mulch to cut your water consumption.
    • Compost to reduce waste and decrease methane production.
    • Turn your yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat and encourage your neighbors to do the same.
    • Plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide.

  • You'll need to take care of yourself while gardening

    As is true of almost any activity, gardening poses certain risks to your health and safety. The CDC recommends that you take these precautions while you’re in the garden:

    • Pay attention to product directions any time you’re using chemicals in the garden. Some pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
    • Wear gloves, goggles, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and other safety gear, especially if you’re using sharp tools.
    • Use bug spray and sunscreen.
    • Drink lots of water and take frequent shade breaks to prevent overheating.
    • Keep a close eye on children. Sharp tools, chemicals, and outdoor heat may pose more of a threat to kids.
    • Listen to your body. It’s easy to injure yourself when you’re toting bags of mulch and hoisting shovels full of dirt.
    • Make sure you have a tetanus vaccination once every 10 years, as tetanus lives in the soil.
Key takeaways

Gardening invites you to get outside, interact with other gardeners, and take charge of your own need for exercise, healthy food, and beautiful surroundings.

If you’re digging, hauling, and harvesting, your physical strength, heart health, weight, sleep, and immune systems all benefit. And those are just the physiological outcomes. Gardening can also cultivate feelings of empowerment, connection, and creative calm.

Whether your patch is large or small, a raised bed, community garden, or window box, getting dirty and eating clean are good for you.

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