BY GERI WOHL, CNC
In these days when it seems that there is so much to be wary of, being outdoors and planting a home garden, particularly one that will bear edibles is a way for us to take some control and reap the benefits, literally of what we sow. Growing up, planting a vegetable garden was a foreign concept in my youth. But as I began raising my children, I felt it was important for them to appreciate that the food on the table didn’t magically come from the supermarket but from Mother Earth (and the dedicated farmers who toil tirelessly to feed us). To that end, I planted a pot on my back patio to grow tomatoes. And lo and behold, we got our first crop and what a delight to see my children run to the backyard to pick the ripened tomatoes and enjoy their sweet, juicy taste. Now I have more space and can grow more than just a single planter. But the wonder remains when the plant grows, the flower appears with the first budding fruit or vegetable, and ultimately the produce that will land on our plate.
But aside from the produce that you will harvest, which will be tastier and can have deeper flavors than experienced from store-bought produce, comes mental health benefits from gardening. Being outside in nature can lower your stress and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety as you have a focus on a goal over time. In a 2017 meta-analysis in Preventative Medicine Reports, 22 case studies showed gardening was positively correlated with lowering of depression and anxiety symptoms. Gardening can help build your self-esteem by formulating a plan and following the steps to get your garden in order. Growing your own food can give you a feeling of control over a situation when you otherwise may feel powerless. And one’s confidence levels improve as we learn a new skill that benefits not only the person gardening but the entire family. Gardening can also increase your happiness and mood. Researchers have found that a healthy bacterium, M. vaccae, lives in the soil and working in the dirt and being exposed to it may increase levels of serotonin, the hormone associated with positive moods and lower anxiety levels.
Of course, there are the health benefits of consuming what you grow. Local, seasonal produce provides optimal flavor and maximum nutrients for us to enjoy. Produce is harvested when it’s at the peak of readiness. The ripened produce contains the full complement of vitamins and mineral that our bodies need to thrive! In contrast, food grown remotely has to be picked well before being fully ripe to account for transit time resulting in produce that hasn’t developed its full array of nutrients. The length of time for food shipments affects the vitamins and mineral by allowing them to break down. An example is that after produce containing vitamin C arrives at the supermarket, it typically has lost about half of its vitamin C levels, which are particularly important for immune health. Being outside in the sun will boost our vitamin D levels, another important immune supporting nutrient. Vitamin D allows for absorption of calcium needed for healthy bones and teeth. Just be careful to not be in the sun too long without any sun protection.
Other health benefits include:
- Lowering blood pressure: Just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days can help keep high blood pressure in check. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends gardening or raking leaves for 30-45 minutes as a means to meet one’s recommended activity levels.
- Weight loss: One can burn 330 calories for one hour of light gardening and yard work according to the CDC. In a study published in the 2013 American Journal of Public Health, both men and women who were part of community gardening programs had significantly lower BMIs (Body Mass Index) than neighbors not participating.
- Stress reduction: As stated above, people’s stress levels are reduced improving their mood and lowering their cortisol (stress hormone) levels when in a calming, green environment.
Now that you can appreciate all the potential benefits of growing your food, where do you start? Here are some tips for planting the ideal garden as adapted from gardeners.com.
- Find a good location with the most sun exposure. Depending on what you grow, it will range between 2-4 hours to at least 8 hours of sun/day.
- Plan your garden layout.
- Determine different varieties of produce that work well in your climate and environment. Know if you are planting full sun-loving plants (>8 hours of sun) such as cucumbers, eggplant, squash, pepper and tomatoes, partial sun-loving edibles (4-6 hours of sun) that include beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onions, peas, and radishes or shade-loving vegetable like arugula, Brussel sprouts, kale, leaf lettuces, spinach and Swiss chard.
- Obtain quality seeds, plants, equipment and supplies to get you started.
- Figure out a watering system to ensure healthy growth for your hard work.
- Prepare soil. This is one of the most important steps.
- Plant seeds or plants properly.
- Control weeds and pests. These can include birds, squirrels, deer, rabbits, etc. I’ve finally broken down and installed netting so that my family gets to enjoy the bounty instead of all our outdoor neighbors.
- Harvest your bounty at its peak and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
One of the most important aspects to a successful crop of produce is the soil. You will need a rich soil for these tender plants as they are usually rapid growers. The soil mix should be 50% existing garden soil, 25% aged manure and 25% compost/humus. Organic matter will improve the fertility of the soil by providing a source of nitrogen and other nutrients that the plants will use as they grow. Rich soil ensures soil microbes, resulting in happier plants and a better crop. If you need more advise on soil, any good nursery will be able to guide you in finding a good soil mixture to use.
You will also need to decide if you want to plant seeds or seedlings. Seedlings will allow you to have an earlier harvest. When planting, remember to take into account how big the plants will grow and ensure that there is adequate room until they are ready to be harvested. Knowing the plants that grow well in your area will allow for improved success. And of course, plant fruits or vegetables that you like or are willing to eat. For the SF Bay Area, click on the link to see what can be grown when–https://sfbaygardening.com/resources/bay-area-planting-calendar/.
Here’s to finding some inner peace in our everchanging world with the benefit of obtaining true farm to table food.
© Geri Wohl, CNC