Why gardening is the best medicine

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My first glimpse into the power of urban gardening was not through bucolic farmer’s markets or verdant nurseries, whose beauty I only came to after medical school. My introduction was in our small suburban backyard of clay soil. My dad planted silvery, wild-armed globe artichokes, because they could produce flower buds and leaves we could eat, to improve our digestion. That glimpse was enough to ignite my curiosity about homegrown food and medicine.

Healthful food is medicine, but now people are increasingly worried about access to both. In the last seven days, 29.2 million Americans sometimes or always don’t have enough to eat, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Next month, those numbers will worsen for millions more, as the already modest federal income supplements of $600 weekly are cut in half.

With COVID-19 revealing our food supply’s vulnerabilities, stores are nearly sold out of seeds and soil. People who can assure a steady supply of high quality, safe, healthful food can lower their risk of getting sick. Why not grow your own? And with such a fragile health system, what if home gardening could be medicine too?

People who garden at home or in community gardens eat, on average, 2 cups more of vegetables daily than they did before gardening.

Regular gardening can cut the risk of a heart attack and stroke by 30 percent for those over age 60, perhaps because sunlight lowers blood pressure as well as increasing vitamin D levels in the summer.

Dementia appears between 36 percent and 47 percent less likely in daily gardeners than nongardeners, perhaps because of increased exercise and socialization and better managed chronic stress.

Gardening reduces childhood obesity and improves adult blood glucose levels, perhaps because of lowered systemic inflammation.

Gardening improves mood among those who are depressed, possibly because of the effortless attention required in gardening, its calming environment, and nature’s ability to distract you from rumination. In the U.S., at least 20 VA medical facilities have therapeutic horticulture programs for PTSD.

Gardening is not new as a medical intervention. In the U.S. in 1818, Dr. Benjamin Rush found evidence that field labor, including “digging in a garden,” had curative effects on mentally ill men. Since the 1940s, horticultural, recreational, and occupational therapists have treated patients suffering from anxiety, chronic stress, and mood disorders with guided gardening.

Planting a garden is a powerful, rebellious, resilient act.  It means being less reliant on the agricultural-industrial complex to feed ourselves.  It means being less dependent on governmental programs. It means being purposeful, because producing food is deeply meaningful, physically engaging, and fun. And it means cash: a 2016 University of California study showed that new San Jose home gardeners saved an average of $92 per month and community gardeners saved $84 per month on produce than before they started.

If you garden organically, you can harvest higher nutrient produce than what’s in the grocery store. Organic vegetables have to fight off pests without synthetic artificial chemicals. The defensive compounds the plants produce are good for you, too.

Planting a garden is also something you can do about climate change. A one-tenth of an acre garden offsets the annual carbon emissions of a single adult, according to soil expert Eric Toensmeier. And the more you garden, the more you care about how your other food is grown, about seed and bounty sharing, and about preserving what you grow.

Gardens thrum at a different cadence than do screens, spreadsheets, and Zoom. Gardens draw your attention, rather than demand it. Experience with nature is sensory—the sweet fragrance of basil, the brown dryness of a corn silk, the hum of bees, the juice of a ripe tomato. In an era where physical contact between people is freighted with fear, plants offer the opportunity to convey compassion by touching, smelling, and nurturing them.

What if you don’t have your own plot? Get creative. I’ve started gardens on windowsills, rooftops, front stoops, balconies, sidewalks, and in hay bales, parking lots, and truck beds. Helping a friend in her garden, gardening in a community plot, or looking for a blank street space to cultivate can begin to solve the problem. Too little sunlight can be an issue too, but one that pots of nearly bulletproof rosemary, sage, and thyme can resolve.

The world is in desperate need of healing. Life-enhancing habits such as eating more nutritious food, experiencing nature directly, and exercising outdoors are underestimated in their power to improve immunity. They are not yet taught as essential in medical schools or even well-known among clinicians. But they deserve to be.

Starting a garden and sharing its bounty is the best thing you can do for your health right now. Be part of something larger than yourself— go out and cultivate your own health.

John La Puma is an internal medicine physician and author of ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine. He can be reached at What is Nature Therapy?

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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