There’s an ancient proverb that says: “Life begins when you start a garden.” That’s clever. Of course, it does, as the very act of planting a seed and nurturing its growth is creating life. Though this may have cued mad scientist laughter in your head, there’s more to gardening than just the gratification of shouting “It’s Aliiiive” to the rooftops. As that old saying suggests, your life could begin if you start a garden. How? Let’s look at all the ways that gardening can contribute to overall well-being.
Uprooting Yourself from the Couch
If you’re a follower of National Geographic, you may have heard of the Blue Zones: five distinct regions across the globe whose populations have remarkable health and longevity. Dan Buettner and his team uncovered what they call the Power9®, which is a set of distinct commonalities that these groups mostly share. Among those is to “move naturally.” These groups’ lifestyles are integrated with daily activities that get them the physical exercise they need without anyone over their shoulder shouting “feel the burn!” No gyms, no 5Ks; just moving with intention and consistency.
Gardening fits into this concept well, because it involves tasks that need to be done that are also beneficial to the body. From lifting, squatting, digging, raking, and climbing, not to mention sweating and soaking up some Vitamin D, it’s easy to get so immersed in gardening that it doesn’t feel like a workout at all. But it is. Just remember to get a good stretch in before and after, keep a bottle of water nearby, and apply sunscreen generously. Protective gloves and lightweight clothing can shield you from ray, thorns, and critters, as well.
Tending to Your Mind
Gardening can be an exceptional form of therapy—and it’s affordable, as long as you don’t become a super-fan and spend your entire paycheck on seeds, supplies, tools, and cute little gnomes. (That’s been known to happen.)
Getting your hands in the dirt, plus the repetitive movements involved in weeding, pruning, and harvesting have a meditative effect. Working in the garden slows you—and your thoughts and breathing—down, making it an activity that can bring you greater calm and lower your stress levels.
There are challenges to gardening, too, whether it’s pest and disease control, dealing with weather conditions, or just figuring out how to keep your plants from wilting and withering. Both researching and troubleshooting stimulate brain function—and learning something new is never a bad thing. There’s a satisfaction and a confidence boost to it all, too; not just in solving problems, but in the end product. After all, you grew something!
Nourishing Your Body
Growing your own fruits and vegetables, or even just maintaining an herb garden, has benefits as well. Having a “plant slant” to your diet is another one of the Blue Zones’ Power9®. For some, access to fresh produce is a barrier to eating healthier, while, for others, it’s more a matter of actually using what you buy at the farmers market. When you grow your own food, there’s not only the convenience of having it right outside your door, there’s also less likelihood of it going to waste; not after all the effort you put in.
You’ll also know exactly what’s in your food, what’s been put on it, and the kind of environment it’s been exposed to—and you won’t need preservatives, since you can usually just harvest your produce when you need it.
Growing your own garden allows you to experiment with new flavors and get more variety in your diet, too. “Eat a rainbow” is a mantra among those promoting a balanced diet, and growing a variety of colors, from orange peppers to spinach; yellow squash to tomatoes, will provide you the spectrum.
And, in addition to giving yourself more access to plants to integrate into your meals, it can prompt you to explore new recipes, as you google “what to make with a bushel of tomatoes” or whatever your surprise yield is this year.
Feeding Your Soul and Spirit
The rewards of gardening extend even further, if you consider the community you can build when you start gardening. Many a budding gardener has greened their thumb by talking with others about their successes and failures. Joining a group of other enthusiasts is not only a great way to increase your knowledge, it’s also a path to finding your “right tribe”—yet another Blue Zones principle. A group with which to socialize and share, that also encourages healthy behaviors, is paramount to better living and greater life expectancy.
There’s also the nurturing aspect of gardening. When it’s still the depths of winter in Michigan, starting seeds indoors not only gives you something to look forward to, it also can provide a sense of purpose. And, you may have guessed, “purpose” is also part of the Power9®. While it might not be at the top of your reasons to wake up in the morning, doting over seedlings, watering and caring for your plants, and maintaining the overall hardiness of your garden reaps plenty of emotional rewards.
Sustaining the Life Around You
When you plant a garden, especially if you’re selective about what you grow, you’re contributing to a thriving ecosystem. Whether it’s growing native plants—those that are already commonly occurring in your region—or planting other species that are beneficial to birds, bees, butterflies, and more, the right garden can help vulnerable wildlife survive.
While a pristine lawn was once a point of pride for homeowners, that attitude has shifted as more information arises about the detriment that all of this grooming and weed prevention and pest control can have on the environment—and your own health if you’re using harmful chemicals that are intended to kill vegetation. Opting for natural products and approaches is better for you and better for the creatures great and small that inhabit your property.
That’s a lot of goodness all from one activity! If you’re intrigued and wondering how to begin, consider starting small. Plant a windowsill herb garden or try a few easy-to-grow vegetables in containers on the patio. This not only eases you into the idea without too much investment, it’s also ideal for those who rent their homes or don’t have a lot of space. Herbs that aren’t too fussy include thyme, parsley, chives, and mint, while carrots, radishes, cucumbers, and zucchini tend to be some of the more carefree vegetables to grow. And, don’t forget wildflowers, which you can practically cast to the wind and expect something to crop up.
You don’t have to start from seed either. Dip your toes into the idea by purchasing established plants from your local greenhouse. Once you see how that goes, you can always graduate to propagating seeds the next season.
For those who have the option and are ready to jump right in, find your spot. It will ideally be an area of ground that receives full to mostly-sun—about 6-8 hours per day. If you’re wondering where that might be, look no further than your own front yard. Many gardeners have converted lawn space to growing space, with the added benefit of less grass upkeep and more fruitful output from the chosen area. A little protection, such as a permanent or removable fence, will dissuade some nibblers, but anticipate a little disruption from your neighborhood furry friends. It’s all part of it.
Then, look for a gardening group to join and local experts to follow. If you have setbacks, you can always ask your newly found tribe for guidance!
For further reading on wellness and longevity, check out bluezones.com. If you’re in the greater Grand Rapids area, ask to join the group “West Michigan Gardening Friends” on Facebook. And, subscribe to MIgardener’s YouTube channel for expert advice on a range of relevant topics.