While you may think you’ve accidentally stumbled on the weekend gardening column, rest assured, this really is a doctor’s essay on health. Hang in there with me for a few paragraphs, and you’ll see why “growing your own” could be a game changer for you. For some of you out there, the idea of planting and harvesting tomatoes and zucchinis might sound like a waste of time, or something too complicated to bother with. But for a lot of us, we have already been bitten by the bug and have seen the benefits to our health and the health of our communities.
Try to list hobbies that give you exercise – aerobic (when you consider mowing and weeding), strength training (carrying bags and buckets of mulch and soil around), balance and stretching (gotta get that one, last weed just out of reach); free vitamin D, exposure to stress banishing nature, outdoor social interaction (especially nice during Covid times), and then at the end of it bushels of delicious veggies, fruits, and herbs (1). What gym membership gives you all that? You don’t have to wear Spandex, you don’t have to pay 75 bucks a month, and the only sweat you have to smell is your own!
The obvious benefits to your own health are listed above. But there are the subtler, wider benefits, as well. For one, you may tend to waste less produce. Due to nurturing them since they were wee “babies”, I eat almost every misshapen tomato and slug-nibbled leaf of kale (the rest goes on the compost pile, to feed next season’s garden). These are items that would have been tossed out even before getting to the supermarket. For another, the environment benefits directly. As Dr. Scott Stoll and his team point out in their paper on regenerative organic agriculture, modern day industrial agriculture is a major contributor to air and water pollution (2). By growing your own, you now have less dependence on gasoline for getting potatoes from a field in Idaho to your plate in Austin. You don’t need to use any gas to get from your kitchen to the back yard (unless you have a really, really big back yard), and your produce isn’t pre-packaged in plastic. Additionally, your organic garden supplies an important and safe food source for bees and other insect pollinators that are in decline due to the use of harmful chemicals by industrial agriculture. You also may find yourself eating more with the seasons, which connects us with nature. At our house, we’re much more likely to make fresh eggplant and tomato pasta sauce in August when they’re ripe, and much less likely to do so in January, when they’d be shipped from Latin America.
Regarding longevity, Dan Buettner points out the commonality of gardening among the inhabitants of the Blue Zones – areas around the world with high concentrations of healthy, long-lived people (3). Sardinian septuagenarians, Okinawan octogenarians, and Nicoyan nonagenarians can all be found out back, digging in the dirt. And that might have something to do with their vibrant longevity.
But where to start? I highly recommend growing some greens. For one, greens are one of the real powerhouses in a healthy diet. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber that keep your arteries open, help keep cancer at bay, and maintain a healthy microbiome. Another reason to grow them is that they don’t stay fresh for very long after you bring them home from the grocery store. By growing them, you can pick just what you need, and just when you need them. Maybe start with growing some kale and chard since they’re pretty easy to grow. But of course there are mustard greens, collards, asian greens, spinach, sorrel, beet greens, and many others. Once you get them going, you’ll have the chance to pop out to your garden daily, harvest a handful of leaves for your green smoothie, or to put in your bean stew or veggie stir fry.
Don’t worry if you’ve never grown your own fruit and veg before. YouTube and other internet resources are full of people ready to teach you how to do it, for free! Also check out your local cooperative extension service or master gardener program. They have great info regarding what to plant in your specific area, and when the best time is to plant them.
Gardening really is good for the heart, for the mind, and for the soul. So if you haven’t already, give it a shot. And don’t stress about getting it perfect – like they say, you don’t have to be good at gardening, for gardening to be good for you!
- “Gardening For Health: A Regular Dose Of Gardening”. Richard Thompson. Clin Med (Lond). 2018 June; 18 (3): 201-205.
- “The Power Of The Plate: The Case For Regenerative Organic Agriculture In Improving Human Health”. Jeff Moyer, Scott Stoll, MD, Zoe Schaeffer, Andrew Smith, PhD, Meagan Grega, MD, Ron Weiss, MD, Joel Furhman, MD. 2020.
- The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest. Buettner, Dan. 2012.