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Author and his beans
Source: Peter Gray photo
I’ve been vegetable gardening pretty much my whole adult life, so it’s fun to see research revealing its benefits. Perhaps you’ve read about the Blue Zones, areas of the world, described by National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner (2010), where people regularly live into their 90s and even 100s. They include Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California, and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. According to Buettner, vegetable gardening is a major activity in all these areas and may be a key to their long lives.
Buettner is quoted (by McPhillips, 2020) as saying in a podcast: “In all Blue Zones, people continue to garden even into their 90s and 100s. Gardening is the epitome of Blue Zone activity because it’s sort of a nudge: You plant the seeds and you’re going to be nudged over the next months to water them, weed them, harvest them. And when you’re done, you’re going to eat an organic vegetable, which you presumably like because you planted it.”
As Buettner explains, gardening is a great source of exercise. It entails the regular, daily, natural sorts of movement that keep our bodies running smoothly. And it provides the fresh fruit and vegetables that we all know are good for us. There’s also evidence that vegetable gardening is a great stress reducer and improves mental well-being.
Research Showing Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Gardening
In an experiment in the Netherlands, participants who regularly gardened were given a frustrating, stressful task and then were asked to spend the next 30 minutes gardening or reading. Those in the gardening condition overcame the stress very quickly, as measured both by self-report and a physiological index, while those in the reading condition did not (van den Berg, 2011).
Much other research shows that simply being outdoors in nature, or even being exposed to growing plants indoors, can relieve stress and hasten healing in people who are ill (Thompson, 2018). Another study, of people over age 62 living in an urban area, compared those who had been assigned an allotment garden with their otherwise similar neighbors who had not received such an allotment. Those with a garden reported fewer physical complaints and greater psychological well-being than did those without (van den Berg, 2010).
In still another study, in the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, participants rated their level of emotional well-being during 15 different presumably enjoyable leisure-time activities, and gardening regularly came out among the top four by this measure (Ambrose et al., 2020). It was right up with bicycling, walking, and eating out. The researchers also found that vegetable gardening promoted well-being more than did ornamental gardening and was the only activity that promoted well-being even more among low-income participants than among those with higher incomes.
What Vegetable Gardening Does for Me
I started vegetable gardening in 1972, right after I had began my first university job, and have done it every year since, with the exception of a few years when I lived in a forest with insufficient sun for a garden. Here's what gardening does for me.
• It gets me out of the house into the fresh air and sunshine nearly every day, from at least early April (when I mend the fence, turn the soil, and plant the earliest crops) through December and sometimes later (as I harvest turnips and rutabagas protected under layers of mulch and often snow).
• It’s an endless source of meaningful exercise. Spading, hoeing, raking, carrying mulch, and the like are equivalent in exercise to what some people pay for at a gym. And the exercise is meaningful because it produces something. It doesn’t just spin a wheel or cause weights to go up and down in the air. What a joy to watch a sprout come from a seed, then a full plant from the sprout, and then, from the plant, the tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, or …. It’s magic.
• It teaches mindfulness; I must pay attention to my immediate world when I garden.
• It teaches patience; I hoe, plant, weed, and wait and wait and wait to see what happens.
• It teaches the futility of perfectionism. There’s no such thing as a perfect garden. Some plants make it beautifully, some barely make it, and some fail dismally; and there’s no predictable pattern from year to year on how this works out. This is life.
• It provides an endless source of puzzles to solve, as I strive to outsmart the various animals that try to rob me of my crops. In the process I’ve learned a lot about the local fauna and nature’s deterrents.
• It greatly improves my diet. I had no idea, before I grew them, that I would so enjoy kale, broccoli, chard, turnips, and rutabaga. Vegetable (and fruit) gardening has made it easy to become a vegetarian. The vegetables and fruits are so good I no longer have a taste for meat. Because some crops store through the winter, we (my wife and I) eat from the garden essentially every day. I’ve also learned to grow salad greens indoors during the coldest months.
• Last but by no means least, it appeals to my natural frugality. Free food! To be honest, that’s why I started gardening, in 1972.
And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post at the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.
Ambrose, G., et al. (2020). Is gardening associated with greater happiness of urban residents? A multi-activity, dynamic assessment in the Two-Cities region, USA. Landscape and Urban Planning, 198, 1-10.
Buettner, D. (2010). The Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest. National Geographic Books.
Thompson, R. (2018). Gardening for health: A regular dose of gardening. Clinical Medicine, 18, 201-205.
van den Berg, A. E. et al (2010). Allotment gardening and heath: A comparative survey among allotment gardeners and their neighbors without an allotment. Environmental Health, 9, 74-101.
van den Berg, A., E. & Custers, M. H. G. (2011). Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. Journal of Health Psychology, 16, 3-11.
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