Cultivating Wellness

How Does Your Garden Grow?

By Lara Evans Bracciante

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2003.

When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health, that I discover I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1849

It’s difficult to find a gardener who doesn’t agree with Emerson. The reward, avid gardeners say, of cultivating the earth is nothing short of sublime. So what exactly is going on in the backyard plot that has captivated more than 85 million Americans? Well, in a word, healing.

Getting your hands dirty and letting your cares fall away can be a meditative experience for the gardener, explains Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturist for the National Gardening Association (NGA) in Burlington, Vt.

“It’s a place to get lost in,” he says. “When people go out to garden, it’s often the first time that day they’ve slowed down and relaxed a little bit.”

On a physiological level, this calming effect lowers stress hormones that may ease a variety of conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders and insomnia. “I encourage people to visit their garden everyday, even if they’re not working on it,” Nardozzi says. “When you reconnect with the weather, temperature, butterflies and other animals, you get a better sense of the cycle and rhythm of life.”

Of course, many gardeners also welcome the physical workout. Planting, watering, weeding, raking, digging, spading, tilling and trimming increase flexibility, strengthen joints and work all the major muscle groups. “The key with gardening,” Nardozzi says, “is to vary the type of work you’re doing, for example doing three different activities for 10 minutes each.”

As with any exercise regimen, the key is to start at a comfortable pace and gradually work your way up to longer, more difficult activities. Ideally, your heart rate while gardening should be the same as when you’re at a brisk walk, but not so high you can’t complete sentences between breaths. Overdoing it can result in sore joints and muscles, or worse, increased heart attack risk. As the summer heats up, make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, which can contribute to headaches
and muscle cramping.

Cultivating your own fruits, vegetables and herbs gives you control over the produce on your plate. Conventional crops are sometimes genetically modified and may contain chemicals that can’t be easily washed away. But in your own garden, for example, you can counter aphids with ladybug larvae rather than pesticide.

Finally, have at the bounty. Fruits and vegetables are full of important nutrients and antioxidants that remain key in preventing disease and maintaining wellness. And biting into a fresh, ripe strawberry never tasted so good.