Gardening for the Health of It!

By Cassie I. Story, RDN

Have you begun to feel the cool crisp air on your skin? Perhaps you have noticed the leaves turning from emerald green to pale orange. On the other hand, maybe you live in a mild-tempered climate that stays the same year round, with the ocean waves leaving little hint for seasonal changes—but traces of fall and pumpkin spice everything have made their way to stores near you. While planting a garden may seem so last season, it is not too late to enjoy homegrown (literally) produce that will be ready just in time for a fall harvest.

Not only can starting a garden bring you a literal bounty of food, research has shown that it offers a host of health benefits as well. Studies have shown that gardening may improve an individual’s life satisfaction, vitality, and psychological wellbeing; supports cognitive function; and can increase a sense of community and togetherness.1-2

A 2017 meta-analysis suggests that gardening activities have various significant positive effects on health including reductions in stress, mood disturbance, and body mass index.3 The analysis also notes several enhancements in quality of life measures like a sense of community, increased physical activity levels, and improved cognitive function.3 Several possible mechanisms were suggested through which gardening may promote health, although it may be difficult to unravel the causal relationships between gardening and health.3 The pathways that the authors suggest for the health impact of gardening may be the benefits of direct experience with nature, the uptick in physical energy expenditure, the opportunity to engage with members in the community via community gardens or produce sharing, and lastly by increasing fruit, vegetable, and herb intake.3

Gardening has been shown to improve quality of life and health across the lifecycle. Intervention studies on children and college-aged students have shown an increase in daily fruit and vegetable consumption when participants recently participated in gardening activities.4 Observational studies on aging populations have found that maintaining a home garden is associated with restorative and physical benefits, increased positive feelings, and a sense of pride, creativity, and achievement.5

If you are ready to dig in, there is no need for space or climate to be an issue. If you are new to getting your hands dirty, a container garden can be an easy and less intimidating way to start!

Here is your step-by-step guide to getting your container garden growing.

1. Choose your container(s). 

Start with a large container or pot that is at least 15 inches deep and wide. If you are a beginner gardener, bigger is better because you can hold more soil and lock moisture in longer. Large flowerpots, barrels, baskets, planters, or any other large container will work—get creative and choose something that speaks to you.

The container or pot must drain well. Ensure there is at least one hole in the bottom for water to flow out. If your container does not have drainage holes, use a drill to create 4-6 holes throughout the bottom for even clearance.

Choose one vegetable or herb for each container, especially if this is your first time gardening. It is important not to overcrowd the pots.

2. Place container in an appropriate area.

Choose an area that receives about six hours of sunlight a day. You may need to move the container throughout the fall depending on the weather (frost, wind, etc.). If you live in cooler areas of the country, you may need to cover your produce with a light cloth overnight to prevent frostbite.

If you have room, try placing it on a small cart or wooden box so that you can easily move it to a more desirable area as the weather and sun pattern change.

3. Plant!

Purchase high-quality, organic potting mix designed to retain moisture well, along with quality plant starts or seed packets from your local garden store. Fill the base of the container with an inch or two of small rocks or pebbles to help drainage and to prevent mold or mildew.

Add soil to the container, leaving about two inches of space from the top. Thoroughly water the soil and let drain for a few hours before planting the seeds or starter plant.

For seeds, plant according to package directions. For starter plants, dig a hole deep enough for the soil to reach the same level they were growing in the container in which they came.

4. Water your new plants.

Maintain moisture levels. The soil should feel moist about one to two inches below the surface. Depending on the climate you live in, you will likely need to water your plants multiple times per week. In the intense Arizona sun, where temperatures can continue well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit through November, I oftentimes find myself watering twice a day to maintain optimal moisture. Watering in the morning is preferred to the evening, because it helps the plants stay hydrated during the heat of the day.

Late summer, early fall vegetables

What to plant from a plant start (with fruit already on the vine):

  • Brussels sprouts: They thrive in cold weather. Once ripe, remove from stalk. Rinse, dry, and toss with coconut oil, walnuts, crushed red pepper flakes, and a dash of honey. Roast at 400° F for 15 minutes for an easy and delicious side dish.
  • Collards: They prefer the cooler weather of spring or fall and grow easily in most climates. Simply sauté with a bit of oil and chopped garlic and enjoy!
  • Peas: They love to climb! Add a trellis or vertical stake. Sugar snap peas or snow peas can be enjoyed raw and add a nice crispness to any meal or snack.

Ten seed vegetables to plant in late summer for a fall harvest

Plant the seeds half an inch to a full inch deep and about one inch apart in each row:

Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, peas, radishes, sage, snap peas, squash

Whether you are a novice or seasoned gardener, planting a container garden can be an easy and rewarding experience. I hope this article inspires you to get your hands dirty and play with your food!

References:

1. Gonzalez MT et al. J. Adv. Nurs. 2010;66:2002-2013.
2. Wood CJ. J. Public Health. 2016;38:e336-e344.
3. Soga M et al. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2017;5:92-99.
4. Loso J. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018;118(2):275-283.
5. Scott TL et al. SAGE Open Med. 2020;8:2050312120901732.

Cassie Story, RDN
Cassie I. Story is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 17 years of experience in treating metabolic and bariatric surgery and medical weight loss patients. She spent the first decade of her career as the lead dietitian for a large volume clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. For the past seven years, she has been working with industry partners in order to improve nutrition education within the field. She is a national speaker, published author, and enjoys spending time with her two daughters hiking and creating new recipes in the kitchen!

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