Last summer, I knocked on a neighbour’s door to remark how much I admired the unusual, pink poppies in her always-tidy front garden. The garden’s owner, a slim, elderly woman, answered the door and invited me in without hesitation, sharing with me not just her poppy seeds but her age: she was ninety. She proudly told me that she had maintained her meticulous garden over the past 40 years on her own.

As I imagined this 90 year old labouring in her garden, I was both impressed and grateful for that encounter, for it made me wonder: could gardening really be the path to a long, healthy life?

Gardening lowers risk of disease

The benefits of gardening are widely cited, and extend beyond the merits of consuming a diet high in pesticide-free, nutritious fruit and vegetables or the diverse remedial properties of herbs. Working in our gardens — the digging, weeding, pruning, lifting, bending and raking — burns calories and strengthens our bodies, toning muscles and improving bone mass, blood-flow and our immune systems. Studies have shown that gardening a few hours per week at a moderate intensity reduces the risk of many modern diseases from heart attacks and diabetes to osteoporosis.

Mental benefits

Gardening is equally therapeutic for our minds. Working in the garden is a natural mood-lifter due in part to a benign bacteria found in the soil, mycobacterium vaccae, which, like an anti-depressant drug, stimulates our brains to release mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin, while we are pulling weeds, planting flowers or doing other gardening tasks. According to experts, having contact with nature and with such ‘friendly’ bacteria also keeps our immune system in check so we are more able to fend off disease.

Seniors in particular benefit from gardening. One long-term study of nearly 3,000 men and women over 60 found regular gardening to be the single most important lifestyle factor in lowering their risk of dementia, reducing risk by more than one third.

Connecting with Mother Nature also has a calming effect on us similar to practicing yoga or meditation. It keeps us focused. This is good for us because it decreases levels of stress-hormones like cortisol in our bloodstream, which translates into fewer stress-related illnesses. Research shows that even children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who interact in ‘green’ outdoor environments have a heightened ability to concentrate and function.

Moreover, few activities have the potential to engage not just one, but all of our senses: the sight of a landscape awash with colour, the sweet scent of peonies in full bloom, foliage tickling your skin, the rhythmical chirping and buzzing of wildlife and the flavour of a sun-warmed tomato just plucked from it’s vine. Within our landscapes lies a full on sensory awakening.

Indoor plant perks

Houseplants, besides beautifying your interior space, also reap healthy rewards. Through regular photosynthesis, houseplants filter the air of harmful VOCs —Volatile Organic Compounds — released from plastics, carpets, glues and many common products found in households.

To filter the air effectively, make sure to regularly clean the dust off leaves, even giving plants a light shower in your tub when needed. Snake plant, cornstalk and red-edged dracaena, peace lily and philodendron are examples of air-filtering houseplants that require minimal light and attention.

Experiencing gardening’s health benefits need not be complicated. So, instead of twiddling your green thumbs waiting for winter to end, here are three health-promoting gardening activities that you can do now:

  • Get outside with sharpened pruning sheers and cut some forsythia branches, or other spring-flowering shrub, to bring indoors. In a vase filled with water, they will be forced into blooming earlier than they would on their own outside.
  • Grow microgreens — the young, edible, super nutritious shoots of vegetable plants such as peas, broccoli, arugula, sunflower seed and herbs like basil. They are yummy in salads and sandwiches and can grow by a window inside your home. They’ll also be ready for harvest in under two weeks.
  • Capsicum (a.k.a. peppers) is the herb of the year, and consuming it can speed up metabolism. February is the month to start sowing hot pepper seeds indoors such as capsicum annuum ‘Tabasco’ or ‘Cayenne’. If you start them now, plants will be ready to set outdoors by summer then peppers can be harvested before autumn. Give them a warm space to grow and plenty of sunshine.

For those who have resolved to get fit and healthy at the start of this new year, like so many of us do, make sure to include some gardening activities in your plan, because whether you are growing poppies, vegetables or houseplants, gardening is good for you. In fact, gardening may be the only gym you will ever need.

Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com

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