From organic flowers to exotic chili peppers, there are countless ways to enjoy gardening. But, the real joy comes from knowing you grew your own food.
Having healthy soil is key to a successful garden. That means testing the soil for moisture regularly (stick your finger into the ground to see if it needs water). Also, avoid using compost that contains animal products.
If the grass looks a little greener this year, there’s a reason: During the pandemic, more than 18 million Americans took up gardening, according to the results of a 2021 survey from the National Gardening Association, and many of them stuck with it. “Now that many of us are still in fully remote or hybrid roles, the interest in gardening is still there,” says Rebecca Sears, resident gardening expert at Ferry-Morse, a company that has been selling seeds and gardening gear since the 19th century. “Seasoned and new gardeners alike want to continue developing their skills.”
This has advantages for more than just the landscape. Research has found that gardening can offer some unexpected perks for physical and mental well-being, including improved mood, increased strength, and even weight loss. If those sound like benefits you’d like to reap, read on to discover more.
How Gardening Benefits Health
“The combination of physical activity and exposure to nature from gardening is powerful,” says Bianca Tamburello, RDN, a nutrition specialist for Fresh Communications in North Reading, Massachusetts. Ongoing research indicates that just spending time outdoors can have health benefits. People who spent at least two hours outside per week were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being than those who didn’t spend any time outdoors, according to research published in Scientific Reports in June 2019.
Another analysis, published in January 2023 in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, found that people who visited a park or wooded area three to four times a week were less likely to use medications for blood pressure (36 percent less likely), asthma (26 percent), and mental health (33 percent).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, and tending to a garden can help reach that goal, Tamburello says. For a roughly 150-pound adult, “light gardening can burn about 330 calories per hour — similar to golfing and dancing,” she says.
Additionally, some research has made connections between gardening and weight management. For example, one small study found that community gardeners had significantly lower body mass indexes than their neighbors who were not in the community gardening program. Another found that gardening offset age-related weight gain.
2. It Gives Your Mood a Boost
For those who love it, gardening feels less like work and more like play. Research published in the June 2018 Clinical Medicine found that community gardening is especially good for mental health because it counteracts social isolation. Other research has found that gardening — with or without other people — can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood. Those social benefits may go as far as delaying symptoms of dementia, according to the Clinical Medicine study. Experts are still searching for a direct link between the two, but there’s a belief that the neuroprotective effects of exercise, improved blood flow to the brain, and the antioxidant effects of movement and nature may all work together to keep the mind sharp.
3. It Improves Strength and Dexterity
Even if it doesn’t feel like a workout, the repetitive nature of gardening is a surefire way to break a sweat. And like any other form of exercise, over time, the practice will improve balance, strength, and dexterity, Tamburello says. In fact, according to the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the digging, lifting, and carrying you do while gardening are all muscle-strengthening activities, meaning they work all the major muscle groups of the body — the legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms. And, compared to other similar exercises, it has the lowest injury rates.
4. It Enhances the Quality of Your Diet
Gardening generally increases your chances of having a more balanced, nutritionally dense diet. A study published in January 2023 the Lancet Planetary Health observed a group of community gardeners and found that participants consumed more dietary fiber than the control group who didn’t garden.
What’s more, the food you grow may be more nutritious. “After produce and herbs are harvested, the nutritional value starts to decline,” says Tamburello. “In most cases, shortening the time from harvesting to plate means more nutritional value.”
5. It Can Up Your Vitamin D Intake
One in four Americans have insufficient vitamin D levels for optimal bone and overall health, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This nutrient can be difficult to get from food, but when you garden outside, you can reap the benefit of the sun’s rays, our primary source of vitamin D. Tamburello says it’s a great way to get your fill, even if you wear sunscreen (as you should if you plan to be out any length of time). A study in the November 2019 British Journal of Dermatology found that sunscreen won’t block vitamin D absorption. The so-called sunshine vitamin has other benefits as well: It’s been found to reduce inflammation, boost immunity, support brain health, and lower dementia risk.
6. It Could Lengthen Your Life
In general, leisure and exercise time spent outside are associated with increased longevity, research shows, and gardening is the perfect combination of the two. Gardening is actually a common practice of the five longest-living communities, according to the research of Dan Buettner, who studied these so-called blue zones and described their shared habits for longevity. It’s believed that gardening’s combined benefits of exposure to nature, exercise, nutrition, and elevated mental health all contribute to its life-lengthening effects.
How to Get Started
Even if you’ve never gardened before, it doesn’t take much to get started. “Herbs are relatively easy to care for, making them great for beginner gardeners,” Sears says. They can be grown indoors and outdoors, are relatively hardy, and make for a simple way to eat what you grow.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can start your herb garden from seeds, but seedlings are even easier to grow, Sears says. Pick some up from your local gardening store, plant them, water them, and watch them thrive.
“I suggest starting with a low-maintenance variety like sage, which is a drought-tolerant perennial and will grow in partial sun,” Sears says. “Chives are also drought-tolerant and easy to maintain once established — plus, they make for a delicious topping on salads and omelets! While oregano needs full sun to grow, it’ll flourish whether you plant it in an outdoor bed or a container, and won’t need much water once it’s established.”
For outdoor herb gardens, Sears says you’ll simply need soil, water, and a trowel “to dig up the perfect spot for your plants.” They’ll get by with a hose-down once or twice a week if it doesn’t rain, Sears adds.
Indoor herb gardens — which you can plant in anything from window boxes to hanging pots — require “well-draining loamy soil,” or one that is equal parts sand, silt, and clay, Sears explains. They also require more frequent watering, around every two to three days.
“If you have a busy schedule and find yourself out of the house most of the day, a self-watering planter can help you maintain your herbs’ moisture without needing to monitor them 24/7,” Sears says. The amount of water you use will also vary based on what you’re growing — for example, mint should be watered one to two times per week, but sage is very drought-tolerant once established and only needs to be watered every week or two, Sears says.
Once you nail down a watering schedule, herbs are relatively easy to care for. “Like all plants, sunlight is key for successful growth, but how much sun your herbs need will depend on the variety,” Sears says.
“Certain herbs, like basil and oregano, grow best in full sun, so if your space permits it, you’ll want to plant them outdoors for the best results,” Sears says. For parsley and mint, she recommends a well-draining potting soil, because it contains extra nutrients. “Sage, rosemary, and thyme can tolerate a sandier soil which drains more quickly and retains fewer nutrients,” she adds. Herbs that tolerate similar conditions can be planted in the same pot.
It’s also a good idea to keep a fertilizer on hand if your herbs look like they need a boost — Sears recommends SUPERThrive Vitamin Solution.
Another indoor option (and a far less messy one) is an indoor hydroponic herb garden, which grows herbs in water instead of soil. “What’s great about growing herbs hydroponically is that you have much more control over their environmental conditions, like humidity levels and light exposure, which allows for more flexibility to grow different herbs,” Sears explains. “Herbs that are grown hydroponically also grow at a faster rate because they’re getting all of the necessary nutrients directly, which will also help them produce bigger, tastier yields.”
Choosing a core group of herbs to begin with can be difficult, but Sears and Tamburello recommend the following health-boosters as an ideal starter pack.
If you’ve contemplated experimenting with gardening for the first time (or maybe ending a hiatus), the relaxing, nurturing practice is certainly worthwhile. It has the potential to improve the function of your body and your mind, and best of all, it’s relatively easy. Plus, there’s no reward quite like enjoying the literal fruits of your labor.