Foodies and gardeners were ecstatic to hear that Michelle Obama started an organic edible garden on the south lawn of the White House last week. Maria Shriver, California’s first lady, also announced that she plans to establish an edible garden at Capitol Park in Sacramento.
Millions of Americans have started private and community plots with the intent of growing their own food. Seed sales are up, and it seems like everyone’s ready to dig in the dirt.
Hooray! I’m pretty sure that every gardener is enriched by working the garden, and we can all learn a lot about good food by growing some of it ourselves.
Since I’m sick of hearing about the recession and pinching pennies, I promise I’ll be discussing the many benefits of gardening besides saving money. (In fact, I think you need to be quite clever to save money growing your own veggies in the first few years of your gardening adventure—read William Alexander’s “The $64 tomato” for one honest and hilarious gardener’s take on growing a few extremely expensive tomatoes in his patch.)
Both the act of gardening and that of being in a garden have a significant impact on people’s well being. What is it about the garden that so many people find restorative and healing?
• Contact with nature promotes good mental health, relaxation and even faster recovery from disease. A classic study showed hospital patients with a view of trees—as opposed to a brick wall—tended to have shorter stays and better outcomes. Several other studies have shown that green spaces are positively related to people’s self-perceived health and mortality risk. In his book “Biophilia,” famed biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests there’s an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, and that we have an innate attraction to nature. (I have a few friends who argue with that, and insist that they absolutely hate the outdoors, but they’re the exception, and frankly are even more bizarre than people who hate chocolate!)
• Gardening is great way to teach children about plant food and healthy nutrition. I think it’s quite obvious that with familiarity and positive experiences fondness grows. If kids have fun in the vegetable patch, and see their seeds grow into beautiful fresh vegetables, they’d be more likely to eat them. Since few American kids consume enough fruits and veggies gardening projects can address this important nutrition objective.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed the scientific literature between 1990 and 2007, and looked at eleven studies of the impact of garden-based nutrition education on fruit and veggie intake and preferences of kids. The researchers concluded:
“Based on the review of relevant but relatively limited literature, the evidence for the effectiveness of garden-based nutrition education is promising. Garden-based nutrition-education programs may have the potential to lead to improvements in fruit and vegetable intake, willingness to taste fruits and vegetables, and increased preferences among youth whose current preferences for fruits and vegetables are low.”
• Gardening can be great exercise. It can be moderate and even strenuous exercise; this really depends on how you garden and what you choose to do. I’ve written before about my inability to get excited about the gym, and that I’d much rather get work done than wait for time to pass when on a treadmill.
If you’re like me, gardening’s the exercise for you. I can edge my beds and dig for hours, and not believe it’s already lunch time, but I can’t take my eyes off the stationary bike’s timer and I swear something’s wrong with it. Whether it’s light pruning or heavy digging, gardening sure beats sitting down. Gardening is physical activity—and it’s especially beneficial for older people.
• Gardening will get you into composting. Any organic gardener knows that the secret to great crops is great soil, and great soil comes from great compost. It sometimes seems to me that some of my gardening friends are more excited by the leftover peels and skins—the stuff that goes in the compost pile—than in food itself. If you grow vegetables, you’ll surely want to recycle your kitchen scraps and send less trash to the landfill, and that’s definitely a good thing.
Even though gardening is good for body and mind, I have a few common sense words of caution: be careful with the sun, be extra careful if you use any power tools, don’t garden with bare feet (or much bare skin altogether; who’d do that, you wonder? I’m not telling!), and stay clear of the poison ivy.
I am still a beginner gardener after more than a decade of working in the soil and I still know very little. I’ve had successes and failures, and I learn something new from my garden every time I’m out there. Here are a few lessons my little piece of nature has taught me and that I’d happily share with Michelle, Maria and any other backyard gardener:
• The easiest growing edibles are culinary herbs. They ask for very little, thrive on neglect, and give great satisfaction. You can start harvesting practically from day one, and they’ll enrich your meals with their complex flavors while adding healthy benefits.
• A garden has a mind of its own about what it wants to grow. Left alone, mine (which has good soil and gets plenty of rain) is sure not to grow any veggies and will be overtaken by weeds. Weeding is therefore the bread and butter of gardening; it’s where I spend most of my time.
• You can either fight the multitude of animals wanting a share of your bounty, or give up without a fight. I opt for the latter. I’m grateful to be able to have rabbits, deer and squirrels in my backyard—they make me happy, they were here before me, and I’m not sure I would have won the fight anyway, as they’re so very clever about getting food. So, I plant a lot to make sure there’s enough for everybody.
• Growing an edible garden sure did deepen my respect for the farmers who grow my food. Growing quality organic food requires knowledge, experience and lots of hard work. I’m very grateful that I can depend of professional growers to supply plenty of delicious produce, because to be quite honest—it’s not that easy to grow your food. If you have little experience your “seasons” are way too short, and not that plentiful. Most of the time it seems you’re practicing delayed gratification just waiting for the veggies to ripen. Waiting and weeding.
• For apartment dwellers interested in joining the edible garden movement a few suggestions: If you have a sunny window you can grow herbs in pots. You can also look into joining a community garden; besides all the benefits mentioned above you'll enjoy gardening in a social setting, and beatifying your neighborhood.
I’d love to hear about your garden experiences and insights. Wishing you a great growing season.
“You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt.” ~Author Unknown