Cooking with Alison

The Benefits of Gardening (and How to Get Started Even if You Live in a Condo)

In Grocery Budget Challenge, Mind Your Cents, Random, Uncategorized on January 29, 2016 at pm

Despite living in a condo, I started gardening two years ago. I started gardening because a concussion left me with lingering debilitation, anxiety, and depression; I wasn’t able to do anything else and, serendipitously, a community garden opened up on my street. At the time, I had no idea that gardening would soon be responsible for a very positive turning point in my recovery process. I later learned that garden therapy, also known as horticultural therapy, is an effective supplemental therapy for all sorts of health problems. In the hopes of helping others, I’ve shared my personal experience, some research to explain the benefits of gardening, and a few tips for how you can get started. Don’t worry, you don’t need a backyard or a community garden to do it! As long as you have a sunny window, you can grow food! Note that although this article focuses on fruit and vegetable gardening, flower gardening can be just as beneficial.

Living in a neighbouring condominium, I was able to tend to our vegetable garden nearly every day. Going to the community garden gave me a daily purpose and an achievable goal. Walking to and from the garden, lifting watering cans, and squatting while pulling weeds and harvesting vegetables helped build my tolerance to physical activity. The fresh air and sunlight was energizing, too. Gardening also encouraged me to socialize again. I met new people from the community and had a new topic to contribute to conversations with family and friends. I was surprised by how many of my friends and acquaintances already shared my love of gardening. I loved figuring out the ideal growth conditions for different types of plants and I learned a lot from conversing with others. Each day brought a new challenge (e.g. weeds, pests, weather conditions) and surprise (e.g. sprouts, flowers, new growth), and I derived much joy from watching the plants change and respond to my care. All of my hard work and patience paid off when I was finally able to harvest the vegetables. Then I had even more fun sharing and trading them, and finding creative ways to cook them. But above all, gardening gave me a sense of accomplishment and progress that I had been desperately missing since my injury. With that came lifted spirits, change in perspective, genuine happiness, and reduced physical symptoms.

Proven Benefits of Gardening

Note: I’ve tailored the list of benefits for fruit and vegetable gardening, but most of them apply to flower gardening, as well.

  1. Food, Nutrition, and Cost

The simplest and most obvious benefit of fruit and vegetable gardening is in the edible product. Since you’re allowing your produce to ripen on the vine before harvesting, your home-grown fruits and vegetables will be fresher and will taste better than the produce sold in grocery stores. But besides being delicious, the produce that you grow yourself will have more nutrients, contain fewer pesticides, and cost you less money than the store-bought equivalent. You can get several harvests from a single planting of vegetables such as kale, spinach, swiss chard, and lettuce. These types of plants will grow back after you cut them, so you can enjoy them all season long. Also, growing your own vegetables means that you can enjoy all of the edible parts of your plants, hence allowing you to stretch your crop yield much further. Here are just some examples of common produce that have edible components that aren’t often sold in grocery stores: the green stalks (called scapes) of certain types of garlic, young snow pea shoots, coriander roots, and the leaves of broccoli, brussel sprouts, sweet potato, and beet plants. Furthermore, gardening makes eating organically affordable. Organic produce is often considerably more expensive than non-organic produce, whereas organic seeds are only a little bit more expensive than non-organic seeds.

  1. Mental Health Benefits

It is well known that there are physical health benefits to all forms of exercise, including gardening. But it may surprise you to learn that horticulture therapy has profound mental health benefits as well. In fact, it has been effective at treating addiction, depression, anxiety, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and low self-esteem.(1, 2) It turns out that soil contains a bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae, that causes our brains to release serotonin  which helps fight depression.(1,2) In one study, feeding this bacteria to mice triggered the release of serotonin which then improved their memory and learning capabilities.(3) Working the soil with your hands and eating home-grown food will increase your exposure to this non-harmful bacteria.(2) In general, using our hands to perform tasks stimulates the parts of our brain that make us feel good.(4) Another possible explanation for the healing effects of gardening may be related to mindfulness.   

  1. Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness means to be present in the moment. When you focus on a single, hands-on task such as gardening, you can quiet your many thoughts and engage in something creative, productive, and rewarding. Being mindful breaks the cycle of ruminations, allows you to think more clearly and less negatively, and makes your problems feel less overwhelming.(4) Mindfulness – mindful gardening included – can help relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and help with the treatment of depression, addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.(5)

  1. Physical Health Benefits

The physical health benefits of gardening, especially when gardening outdoors, far exceed those of other forms of exercise. To start, gardening can improve strength, muscle tone, flexibility, blood circulation, and physical endurance, which in turn reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease.(6)  Studies have also shown that being among plants and nature can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower your heart rate, and lower your blood pressure,(7) Simply exposing your skin to sunlight increases vitamin D levels which is important for bone health and preventing osteoporosis.(6) More surprisingly, research has shown that just being exposed to plants can improve your immune system.(8) It is hypothesized that plants release phytoncides to protect themselves from bacteria and fungus, and that these chemicals are also beneficial for humans.7 Lastly, a lot of people have difficulty staying motivated and sticking to an exercise routine, but according to one study, people who exercise outside are more likely to exercise consistently.(7)

  1. Environmental

Growing your own food is not only good for your health and budget, it’s good for the environment, too! Since 81% of the fruits and vegetables used in Canada are imported(9), you can reduce your carbon footprint by buying fewer imported goods. You’re also producing less garbage by growing your own food, because grocery stores often sell their produce with non-recyclable packaging (e.g. plastic bags, styrofoam, elastic bands, twist ties).

  1. Creativity

Gardening is actually a great outlet for your creativity. If you grow flowers, you can choose complimentary colours and design a beautiful landscape/container using different types of plants. You can also create floral arrangements using flowers cut from your garden. If you grow fruits or vegetables, you can get creative with different recipes. You could also experiment with different food preservation methods such as freezing, canning, pickling, and drying.

7.  Social and Community

Gardening encourages social interaction with the community, friends and family, and people with common interests. Inviting friends and family to enjoy a meal cooked with your home-grown vegetables is another great way to bring people together. In particular, becoming part of a community garden opens up opportunities to meet new people, give back to society, and become more involved in the neighbourhood.

8.  Patience and Acceptance

Lastly, gardening teaches us to practice patience. We can’t make plants grow faster anymore than we can make our health problems recover more quickly. When we learn to accept the things that we cannot control, we can move past disappointment, let go of judgment, and feel peaceful in the midst of any storm.

How to Get Started With Gardening

A plant’s basic needs are simple: a medium from which it can grow (e.g. soil or water), light (e.g. sunlight or plant growth-promoting lights), and water. Added nutrients help too. When caring for your plants, remember that they all have different needs for optimal growth. If you have any questions, you can always get help from staff at gardening stores, gardening books from the library, online searches, and talking to people that have gardening experience. Below are some simple guidelines to help you get started.

  1. The first step is to decide where you’d like to grow your plants. Your options may include: front yard, backyard, community garden, balcony, rooftop, and indoors (in front of a window that gets a lot of sunlight). You might even want to set up a small, pre-fabricated hobby greenhouse on your balcony or in your backyard (see here for more information). A greenhouse will allow you to grow vegetables in the winter, too!
  2. Figure out the conditions that you’ll be working with. Determine whether your plants will be planted in the ground/raised garden bed, or containers. Then make note of how much sun your garden will be exposed to. Assuming you are in North America and your chosen area isn’t covered in shade by nearby trees or buildings, south-facing and/or west-facing windows/balconies/yards will get the most sun; east-facing areas will get moderate sunlight; and north-facing areas will get very little sunlight.
  3. Select plants that will thrive under your garden conditions. Consider flowers, non-flowering plants, herbs, fruits and/or vegetables. Keep in mind the available space surrounding your garden, as some plants need to grow upwards onto fences, trellises or cages, and others need to spread out along the ground. Community gardens tend to prohibit the types of plants that spread out horizontally, such as zucchini and squash.
  4. Decide whether to purchase a starter plant or to plant from seed. Then figure out the best month of the year to start growing your plants. Some plants need to be planted in early spring while the temperature is still a bit cool, whereas others do best when planted during the hottest months of the year. You could even get an early start to the season by starting your seeds in small containers indoors and then planting the seedlings outdoors once it’s warm enough. If you start your own seeds indoors, you will need some seed-starting potting soil. I’ve had success using the Jiffy seedling greenhouse and pellets, but there are more economical options.
  5. Determine the medium (e.g. water, soil, manure, moss, and/or bark, etc.), appropriate amount and frequency of watering, and fertilizer/plant food that will work best with your plant(s). You might even want to try growing plants that only need water (i.e. no soil). Check out these vegetables that will regrow in water alone. I plan to try this with celery, because celery is among the dirty dozen list of fruits and vegetables that are very high in pesticide content. Organic celery is very expensive, but you can regrow it for free! (I’ll let you know how it works out for me!)
  6. Then you’re ready to start gardening! Seeds and starter plants usually come with planting instructions. (On a side note: If you’re planning on planting more than one species in a single container or garden bed, you might want to do a quick internet search about the beneficial and antagonistic relationship between neighbouring plants, so that you know which of your plants should and shouldn’t be planted side by side.)
  7. Protect your plants. Insects, pests, and/or animals may eat or disease your plants. First, identify the type of insect, pest, or animal that you are dealing with and then find a simple and non-toxic solution. For instance, putting up physical barriers like fencing can keep rabbits out, and homemade insecticides can kill insects (see one recipe here). It’s all part of the natural gardening experience. You’ll be enjoying your flowers, fruits, herbs, and/or vegetables in no time.




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