April is National Garden Month. The warmer temperatures and lengthening days of this verdant time of the year signals the awakening of nature from a deep winter sleep. After months of daydreaming about plants and poring over garden catalogs, gardeners everywhere anxiously await the opportunity to exercise their “green thumbs”. As we wait for the soil to dry and temperatures to warm a bit more, now is an ideal time to consider the many benefits of gardening.
At a time when our nation is in the throws of a deep recession, saving money is on the mind of most people. Vegetable gardening is an excellent way to save on the family food bill. The National Gardening Association estimates that a well-maintained vegetable garden yields an average return of $500 per year. Multiplied by the number of vegetable gardens in the country (36 million), the NGA estimates that American food gardeners are producing more than $21.6 billion of produce a year.
Roger Doiron, founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International, weighed and recorded each vegetable harvested last year from his 1,600-square-foot garden outside Portland, Maine. At the end of the growing season he found he had saved about $2,150 by growing produce for his family instead of buying it. Is it any wonder that garden seed companies are reporting record sales in an era when many business are failing.
You don’t have to spend $500 on a raised bed filled with an artificial growing medium to benefit economically from gardening. A study by Burpee Seeds revealed that $50 spent on gardening supplies can be multiplied into $1,250 worth of produce annually. This twenty-fold return on investment also was documented by a national survey conducted a number of years ago. Simply put, if vegetable gardening does not reduce your food bill you are doing something wrong.
It has been well documented that physical activity is important for maintaining good health, both physical and mental. The digging, hoeing, raking, etc. associated with gardening are great forms of exercise while doing something productive. The average gardener burns between 300 and 400 calories per hour while gardening. That same person would have to walk about four miles at a fairly brisk pace to use up the same number of calories. Someone once remarked, “gardening is a labor of love; a treadmill is just labor.” Also, research has shown that gardening reduces stress which is all too much a part of our daily lives and can lead to health problems of various types.
Gardening offers nutritional health benefits as well. Eating fresh vegetables and fruits is known to be important for good health. Some suggest it may even reverse the aging process. The availability of fresh, inexpensive produce from the family garden is conducive to maintaining good dietary habits and (at times) forces greater vegetable consumption. When shopping at the supermarket, you might purchase one zucchini. Plant zucchini in a garden and you suddenly are looking for new recipes to make good use of the bounty of your harvest.
Gardening is “good medicine” for one’s inner self. By allowing people to connect with nature and other living things, gardening tends to restore our spirits and make us feel good about ourselves. Research has shown that next to the marital role, accessibility to nature is the most important factor in life satisfaction.
Simply being surrounded by growing plants and blooming flowers is a way to become immersed in another world and a diversion from the stresses and demands of life. Working with plants tends to divert one’s attention from other trials and tribulations of life and affords people the opportunity to achieve a level of serenity and enjoyment that often escapes us in our technologically-based society.
Humans need to feel needed and successful in life. Planting and caring for a flourishing flower or vegetable garden imparts a sense of accomplishment without unreasonable expectations often placed upon us by society. For this and other reasons Plant Therapy is a therapy modality many hospitals and health care facilities now offer. Plant Therapy recognizes the healing power of plants whether people are suffering from physical, psychological or emotional problems.
Gardens benefit our planet in many ways. They reduce our “carbon footprint” by growing food locally instead of having it shipped in from distant locations. Plants take in carbon dioxide as they manufacture food thus helping to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gasses. The latter have been linked to global warming and climate change. Gardens help to reduce soil erosion by slowing rainfall runoff and allowing it to infiltrate more slowly into the ground. Additionally, gardens tend to serve as a food source and gathering place for many types of wildlife such as butterflies and birds.
Working together strengthens the bonds between people. Gardening represents a universal language that can strengthen family relationships and is a wonderful way for generations of family members to interact. The most valuable “produce” from a garden just might be the joy derived from working with family and friends.
Gardening also can help bring communit ies clos er together, ameliorating differences between socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups. For example, research has shown that community gardens and urban forests lead to a lower level of crime and domestic violence in cities. Even corporate America is considering the advantages of surrounding people with plants as it emphasizes the importance of landscaping places of business.
Gardening is a learning experience; every year provides different challenges from which one can learn. Gardening can encourage children and adults alike to be more curious about their surroundings and nature. It is a great way to teach youngsters the joy that can come from work and that positive results are not always instantaneous in life. Gardens make us more aware of our senses through simulation of sight, smell and touch. They have the ability to motivate people in many different ways and serve as a creative inspiration.
In short, gardens and gardening remind us of everything that is good about life—the beauty of nature, the feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment for having done something productive and the realization that our efforts are helping to improve ourselves, our society and our physical/biological environment.
The bottom line, then, is not how you garden; it’s if you garden. Organic or non-organic, raised bed or conventional, hydroponic or soil-based probably make very little difference. Ultimately, there probably isn’t a best way to garden, as long as you garden. For those of you who are gardeners, best wishes for the upcoming growing season–relish it while it lasts. For those of you who are not, there is no time like the present to start.
REVISED: November 8, 2012