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The Why of Gardening

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This column mostly aims to provide practical advice, but once a year or so I need to remind everyone of why we garden. This is particularly aimed at anyone still debating whether to bother with starting—or maintaining—a garden (short answer: yes).

There are several reasons it’s worth the time, effort, and some expense to put in a garden, whether we’re talking about a vegetable garden, ornamental beds, or fruit trees and bushes (why not all of them?)

For one thing the effort = exercise, which benefits your health and your physique. Usually a gardener performs a variety of different motions, thus toning different parts of the body. Regular exercise is good for mood as well as other physical systems. And a fair amount of this work is done in the sun, which means you’re getting vitamin D if you have some skin exposed. Most Americans don’t get enough vitamin D.

Exposure is also good for the immune system. Of course, you don’t want enough exposure, all at once, to get a sunburn. Better to get lesser amounts daily, especially in the morning. Also, take it from one who has been sentenced to macular degeneration and cataracts; wear sunglasses whenever the sun is bright enough to make you squint.

There is evidence that sunlight boosts other substances besides vitamin D, and benefits mood and sleep as well as many body systems. I read that 8 to 10 minutes of exposing 25% of the body (face, hands and arms) at noon suffices to capture adequate vitamin D. Yes, you can use machines that produce artificial rays, or you can take vitamin tablets, but studies often show that these supplements don’t work as well as the real thing. I look at it like this—we humans evolved on planet Earth, which means that Sol is the sun of our homeworld, and is therefore perfectly matched to our needs. If you move to another planet, you may need artificial supplementation to correct for the different spectrum of sunlight from a foreign sun.

Then there are the benefits of the fruits of your labor—the fruits and vegetables of your labor, I should say. Sure, you can buy them in the store, but they likely won’t be organic, whereas your own, I hope, will be pristine and pure, innocent of any toxic sprays. You can’t get any fresher produce than what you pick in your backyard.

All of which means this is also healthier for you than the limp, sprayed, old produce you can buy in a supermarket. If you take good care of your soil, your produce will also likely have a better level of nutrients than the stuff produced by those focused on efficiency and profit. Even the flowers you grow are a benefit, because a bouquet you picked and arranged yourself adds cheer to a room; they feed your aesthetic senses while the fruits and vegetables feed your body. It’s all good—you can put vegetables in your flowerbed or flowers in your vegetable garden, without risking arrest.

One more health benefit of growing a garden: getting your hands in the soil—bare hands, please, it’s time to take the gloves off. This exposes you to Mycobacterium vaccae. Yes, bacteria, sometimes called germs in scornful tones—but you need some bacteria to digest food, and the soil bacterium M vaccae spurs the release of serotonin, called the “happy chemical.” So do some of those elements of ultraviolet rays from the sun. So that’s why you’re so happy out there weeding your garden—it’s not just the fresh air, bird song, and elegant butterflies flitting by. Who would have guessed!

Other soil bacteria are part of the web that, in a ring of eternal alchemical magic, transforms dead organisms and water into tiny lifeforms, eaten by other lifeforms, in turn eaten or scavenged by yet other creatures, while minerals are fed by mycelium to plant roots in exchange for plant sugars in what has been called “the original underground economy” and “the wood-wide web.” The notion that all bacteria are bad, like the notion that snakes or frogs or bugs are bad, is just ignorance. (Chiggers, on the other hand, ARE bad.)

So there are multiple health benefits in gardening, and some of them improve the health of family members of the gardener (when they eat your produce). But we haven’t come to the end of the list of benefits yet. You can save money by growing some of your own food, too. Also, by letting some wildflowers and native berry bushes grow in or around your garden, you help feed and perpetuate bees and butterflies and birds.

Importantly, gardening increases your self-sufficiency. If, for any reason, the shelves in the supermarket are bare (and there is reason to think this will happen much more often in the future), you may have some nonperishables like grains and dry beans stored up; you may have a freezer full of produce. But you may lose power to that freezer, and you’ll need fresh fruit and vegetables. If you already have a functioning garden, you’ll be ahead of the game, even if you have to expand it. You’ll have the tools, seeds and know-how. And your extra produce will be a great trade item.

Even with none of that happening, your extra produce, extra eggs and jam and salsa and honey, make for gifts sure to be appreciated.

Here’s the bottom line. Slaving away in the rat race may raise the number in some ledger. But if you enjoy gardening, and it improves your health and security, well, isn’t happiness the real bottom line in life?

Mary Wildfire lives on the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia with her husband Don. She endeavors to grow more and more of their own food, while continuing her quest to figure out how to save the world. Mary feels that clear, detailed depictions of a positive future are being dangerously neglected. She writes to help us all envision the sustainable, healthy communities that we work to create. Currently Mary’s reviews and commentaries can be found at resilience.org where this article was originally published.


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