Healthy in the garden

Squirrel in the South Carolina Botanical Garden
Squirrel in the South Carolina Botanical Garden

by Dr. Andrea Hilborn, ND

Gardening season is here again. I love gardening but this year, in a moment of overwhelm, I told my husband I did not want the hassle. It's a lot of work keeping up with a garden, and I was questioning the return on investment.

Fortunately, he went ahead and did it anyways. He skipped the meticulous timing, the seed testing, the layout planning and just got some seeds and transplants in the ground. I'm glad because there are so many great things about gardening.

Gardening provides some nice health payoffs via physical activity, consumption of fruit and veggies and stress reduction.

The physical activity of gardening has been studied in kids and seniors. It is clear that having a school garden that kids participate in increases their level of physical activity. Studies have not shown that gardening increases the physical activity level of seniors, but I think it's a pretty likely conclusion. Some researchers have pointed out that gardening may increase the risk of back injury. I would argue that any type of physical activity will increase a person's risk of injury, but we know that the longterm benefits of physical activity are worth the risk. Remembering basic guidelines like lifting from the knees and paying attention to your body's signals may protect your back.

Again, it hasn't been proven in a study, but having a garden probably increases consumption of fruits and veggies, which is a challenge for all of us. One study has shown that having a school garden increases students' desire to eat veggies- what a blessing for parents of picky eaters!

My personal garden favourite is fresh baby lettuce. It's just so much more delicious than the leathery romaine available at the grocery store. It's also very easy to grow. Start with a nice supply of lettuce seeds. We like to try less-common varieties to get some variation in flavour, appearance and colour. In a prepared bed, use your trowel to make a shallow trench, no more than one centimetre deep. Seed thickly and pinch the trench closed. Keep the area well hydrated. The lettuce will sprout and can be eaten at any stage until it bolts. You will know it has bolted when it starts to develop a taller stalk in the middle. The flavour becomes more bitter and you will see more white latex when the leaves are cut. I try to cut my lettuce before the garden gets watered because the water tends to splash dirt up onto the lettuce. You can cut the entire lettuce plant, or you can cut the outer leaves and allow the inner leaves to keep growing. If you are not going to eat your lettuce right away, store it without washing it. Water will cause it to go bad.

Perhaps the best benefits of gardening is the way a session in the garden can make life's cares seem more manageable.

One Swedish study looked specifically at the effect of being in a garden on workplace stress. Over the course of the study, spending time in a garden seemed to mitigate the negative effects of workplace stress.

Another study measured the heart rates of high school students who looked at real and fake flowers. Compared to looking at fake flowers, looking at real flowers had less variable heart rates, which practically speaking, means that they were more calm.

Putting all these benefits together, we see an overall health benefit. Not many studies have shown hard evidence that gardening is healthy, but many have indicated that it probably is. For example, a randomized control trial compared teenagers who gardened at a community garden to those who didn't after 12 weeks. Gardeners had greater reductions in body mass index and waist circumference.

I was reluctant at first, but I know once I get out there I'll remember all the great things about gardening. Hope you enjoy it too!