Author//Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD, Pathways to Family Wellness
I love to garden— so much so that I’ve created a little urban farm at my home in New York City, replete with food, medicinal herbs, and chickens.
Gardening is such an easy way to interact with nature. You get to surround yourself with flowers, veggies, and herbs, grow your own fresh food, get your hands dirty, and have a reason to spend time outdoors. What’s not to like?
But gardening does more for your mental, physical, and spiritual health than you might think. Here are five reasons why you should start growing things.
1. Gardening helps alleviate mental and physical illnesses.
Remember when you’d get yelled for making mud pies? It turns out you were right all along! It’s time to get back in touch with that dirt-loving child. Studies show that organisms in the soil can make you feel less anxious and improve your focus and problem-solving skills. In particular, studies show that the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae increases serotonin in parts of the brain that control mood and cognitive function. Yes, getting dirty actually makes you smarter.
Humans evolved alongside these helpful bugs and bacteria. Our immune systems love them! As we live “cleaner” lives and spend less time in contact with soil, we isolate ourselves from these bacteria, causing our immune systems to get antisocial. Ultimately, this can lead to inappropriate inflammation, which plays a role in heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Reintroducing these bacteria by digging in a garden can prevent and even help to reverse these health issues, and others as well. I write about this in my book, The Dirt Cure.
Gardening is also said to lower the risk of developing dementia, and people who are already experiencing mental decline still benefit from this form of horticultural therapy. Memory gardens offer a beautiful way for people with Alzheimer’s disease to experience the psychological benefits of walking through the gardens without getting lost.
2. Gardening gets your blood moving.
Although it’s not a workout at the gym, gardening is exercise with its own benefits. Digging, weeding, and planting are repetitive exercises that require stretching and strength, which engage your muscles in a low-impact way. It can be especially helpful for people who find more intense exercise a challenge. Gardening is also very goal-oriented, which means some people find it easier to stick with than other forms of exercise, which can become tedious. Gardening offers a glorious purpose—to grow beautiful or delicious plants.
Although I lift weights and run, gardening engages muscles that I don’t normally use in new ways. It also forces me to stretch. I’m always amazed by how good my body feels after spending a couple of hours in my garden.
3. Gardening is natural stress relief.
Stress is a problem for just about everyone at some point or another. Having tools to ease it, whatever the source, can only help! Studies have shown that gardening effectively lowers your cortisol levels and decreases stress. That’s right— simply connecting with soil, plants, and the beauty of nature relaxes you! Your body will even release endorphins—just as it does after sex or vigorous exercise.
Sometimes we get stressed from just thinking too much. Our minds have a finite capacity for the focused attention we use when answering emails or checking our phones. Exceeding it causes attention fatigue, which in turn can trigger irritability, distractibility, and stress.
The sounds and smells of gardening also help unlock the meditative state of “involuntary attention.” This effortless level of attention engages a wider focus. The soothing, repetitive movements of gardening help your body take over and your mind let go of unnecessary stress.
I call my time in the garden “natural Prozac.” I feel so grounded, held, and connected to all of the gifts offered by Mother Earth. I experience it as nourishment and healing. It’s a form of active meditation. There’s something about seeing a gorgeous flower bloom, or watching tomatoes or okra ripen, that makes your body let out a huge, magnificent sigh.
4. Gardening gives you access to the freshest foods.
Food you grow yourself is some of the most nourishing food you can eat. Compared to grocery story food, which has been picked, shipped, and left to sit for days, food from your garden is food you know is fresh. You know exactly where it comes from—how it was grown, when it was harvested, and whose hands lovingly touched it in the process.
People who grow food tend to eat healthier and be healthier. It saves a lot of money in the long run. Remember that old saying: Pay the farmer now, or pay the doctor later.
Children who garden are also more likely to be adventurous about trying new foods—even greens. There’s something about being part of the process of growing their food that compels children to get over their resistance to eating new veggies. It’s almost as if some ancient knowledge of the earth awakens in them when they get their hands in the dirt.
I’ve had children wander through my garden and pick cherry tomatoes or string beans and pop them into their mouths, with a face of such wonder and enjoyment. My own children talk about our plants as if they’re their own babies, expressing such pride in what they produce. To this day, I still hear about our bumper okra crop, and how big some of it grew!
5. Gardening is medicine for your soul.
Produce that you grow yourself tastes the best…for good reason. Putting in hard, involved work and achieving a tangible goal—food—is an amazing source of pride and life satisfaction.
Gardening can be social, too. Whether you’re teaching your children how to dig for worms or planting in a community garden, it’s a way to connect with the people around you in a place of beauty and relaxation.
But most of all, growing a garden immerses you in the rhythms of the earth—of seasons, of death and rebirth, of nourishment, and of all life. Gardens allow us to partner with the earth in a magical way, and to feel so much wonder, awe, and gratitude in the process.