Vegetable Gardening as a Key to Health, Happiness, Longevity

By Peter Gray Ph.D.  Freedom to Learn

Some doctors are prescribing gardening for stress disorders, instead of drugs.

I’ve been vegetable gardening pretty much my whole adult life, so it’s fun to see research revealing its benefits. Perhaps you’ve read about the Blue Zones, areas of the world, described by National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner (2010), where people regularly live into their 90s and even 100s. They include Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California, and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. According to Buettner, vegetable gardening is a major activity in all these areas and may be a key to their long lives.

Author and his beans Source: Peter Gray photo

Buettner is quoted (by McPhillips, 2020) as saying in a podcast: “In all Blue Zones, people continue to garden even into their 90s and 100s. Gardening is the epitome of Blue Zone activity because it’s sort of a nudge: You plant the seeds and you’re going to be nudged over the next months to water them, weed them, harvest them. And when you’re done, you’re going to eat an organic vegetable, which you presumably like because you planted it.”

As Buettner explains, gardening is a great source of exercise. It entails the regular, daily, natural sorts of movement that keep our bodies running smoothly. And it provides the fresh fruit and vegetables that we all know are good for us. There’s also evidence that vegetable gardening is a great stress reducer and improves mental well-being.

Research Showing Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Gardening

In an experiment in the Netherlands, participants who regularly gardened were given a frustrating, stressful task and then were asked to spend the next 30 minutes gardening or reading. Those in the gardening condition overcame the stress very quickly, as measured both by self-report and a physiological index, while those in the reading condition did not (van den Berg, 2011).

Much other research shows that simply being outdoors in nature, or even being exposed to growing plants indoors, can relieve stress and hasten healing in people who are ill (Thompson, 2018). Another study, of people over age 62 living in an urban area, compared those who had been assigned an allotment garden with their otherwise similar neighbors who had not received such an allotment. Those with a garden reported fewer physical complaints and greater psychological well-being than did those without (van den Berg, 2010).

In still another study, in the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, participants rated their level of emotional well-being during 15 different presumably enjoyable leisure-time activities, and gardening regularly came out among the top four by this measure (Ambrose et al., 2020). It was right up with bicycling, walking, and eating out. The researchers also found that vegetable gardening promoted well-being more than did ornamental gardening and was the only activity that promoted well-being even more among low-income participants than among those with higher incomes.

What Vegetable Gardening Does for Me

I started vegetable gardening in 1972, right after I had began my first university job, and have done it every year since, with the exception of a few years when I lived in a forest with insufficient sun for a garden. Here’s what gardening does for me.

• It gets me out of the house into the fresh air and sunshine nearly every day, from at least early April (when I mend the fence, turn the soil, and plant the earliest crops) through December and sometimes later (as I harvest turnips and rutabagas protected under layers of mulch and often snow).

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