updated 04/30/2013 AT 7:15 PM ET
•originally published 05/01/2013 AT 12:35 PM ET
I’m about as bad at gardening as I am at fishing (or any other outdoor hunter/gatherer activity).
Regardless, my curiosity got the best of me when I saw the sprawling fruit and vegetable garden at my friend Maria Menounos’s house. From eggplants and carrots, to lemons and lettuce, she has a cornucopia of crops in her backyard.
Not one for treadmills or spin classes, Maria finds an hour of gardening a few times a week not only gets her heart rate up, but she gets to eat more nutritious, and often, better tasting food.
Where do I sign up?
First, I thought I would do a little research about gardening and the benefits, write a blog, and then maybe plant some basil near my mailbox. But then, something happened.
I found tons of scientific data showing that a green thumb not only saves you time and money with grocery shopping, but you can actually lose weight, too! Moreover, you will end up eating more fruits and vegetables – all of which will have more nutrients and less (actually zero) pesticides than those that you find at your big box grocer.
So, first I’ve written the blog (please enjoy). And later this week, I will (attempt) to create my own fruit and vegetable garden. Wish me luck!
Here are some compelling reasons to get our hands dirty in the garden this spring.
Locally Grown Produce Is Better for You
You’ve probably noticed that there is a grassroots movement to encourage consumers to favor locally grown produce (“local” generally means grown within 100 miles of your location), but why?
Current estimates are that, on average, a produce item travels more than 1,500 miles from farm to table. Because the nutrients in most fruits and vegetables start to diminish as soon as they’re picked, the longer the journey in transportation, the more the nutritional value of the produce is affected.
How much more “local” can you get than your own backyard? Forget miles – you’re talking steps!
The most nutritious produce of all is the produce you grow and pick yourself, because you control what you’re growing. When you grow your own produce, you also know exactly what went into growing it in terms of chemicals, etc. You can pick the fruit when it’s fully ripe and when it has its maximum amount of nutrients.
Commercially farmed fruits are often picked when they’re not yet ripe to reduce spoilage, so that significantly affects its nutritional value (not to mention taste!). If you’ve had one, you know you’ve never really tasted a tomato until you’ve had one that is picked ripe off the vine.
Plus, with more fresh vegetables at home, you’ll be likely to increase the number of servings of vegetables you eat per day. Studies show that people who grow fruits and vegetables in their yard have increased vegetable intake over those who don’t.
Sprout Robot is an amazing resource if you’re new to growing your own produce. You type in your zip code and it tells you what and when to plant everything. It can even send you seeds when it’s time to plant them!
Gardening Is Good Exercise
When you think about all the physical activities that go in to gardening – kneeling and standing, digging, weeding, moving, watering, etc. – then it won’t surprise you that you can burn more than 300 calories an hour according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) Health & Fitness Journal. So while it’s not a cardio workout, it’s great low-impact physical activity for all ages.
Growing Your Own Produce Saves Money
A study from the National Gardening Association found the average family with a vegetable garden spends roughly $70 per year on it and grows an estimated $600 worth of vegetables!
The most notable way to save some serious cash is to grow your own herbs. Organic herbs can run up to $6 at the grocery store, but it’s super easy (and sustainable!) to grow the same herbs in your own home. Herbs are a great starter project for someone who’s new to gardening or is convinced they lack a green thumb.
Gardening Relieves Stress
There’s something about getting your hands dirty and helping a living thing grow that has consistently shown to be good for our mental health, especially when it comes to reducing stress. In a landmark experiment on acute stressful situations published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2011, 30 subjects were given a stressful task and were then randomly assigned to two groups: 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or 30 minutes of indoor reading. While both decreased stress, the relief found by the gardening group far exceeded that of the reading group. Similar studies have found that gardening can also have beneficial effects on blood pressure and muscle tension.
Gardening Benefits Kids
Do you have trouble getting your kids and teens to eat their vegetables? Studies show that when kids are involved in growing fruits and vegetables (such as a home garden or a school community garden), they re not only more likely to eat the vegetables; they’re actually more likely to enjoy them! These habits stick, too. Children who participate in gardening learn to like vegetables and have more positive attitudes toward fruit and veggie-based snacks.
Gardening also helps them identify with nature and develop respect for the environment, and can even improve their science test scores! One study of Texas 3rd, 4th and 5th graders even found that students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students that did not.
Gardening Is Good for the Neighborhood
If you live in an apartment building or don t have a yard of your own, I highly recommend getting involved in community gardening. Community gardens, made popular in the U.S. by the Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII, are a shared space where people within a community can grow flowers and vegetables. Most popular in schools and urban neighborhoods, the land may be separated into lots or shared as a whole. Finally getting some of the attention they are due, community gardens can transform individuals and communities for the better.
A recent study out of the University of Utah published in the American Journal of Public Health found that people who participate in community gardening are less likely to be overweight or obese than their non-gardening neighbors. They also have lower BMI, on average! Community gardening isn’t only good for our waistlines, it’s also good for our neighborhoods and our social well-being. Community gardens can strengthen a neighborhood by encouraging socialization, nurturing feelings of community and safety, and fostering pride in one’s community. Studies show that even small amounts of greenery help inner city residents to feel better and their actions follow – community gardens have been linked to reduced crime.
If you’re skeptical about gardening being a way to boost floundering urban neighborhoods, you should listen to what South Central L.A. community leader, Ron Finley, has to say. Fashion designer for pro athletes turned “guerilla gardener,” Finley is on a mission to improve the health and welfare of poor, urban areas through gardening. The streets of South Central L.A., where he’s lived his whole life, were his inspiration to be a part of changing an unhealthy cycle with the help of, yes, gardening.
In an op-ed for CNN, Finley writes, “Children learn what they live … If they live around alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food and violence, this is what they will reproduce in their lives and in society in general. This is a vicious circle that needs to end … When kids learn to grow vegetables, they learn not only how to eat in a healthy way but how to be productive and are armed with a value-system that will help them to navigate in their lives – values such as patience, appreciation, sharing, honesty and respect.”
There’s also something to be said about the appreciation for food one acquires when one is so intrinsically apart of its growth. Knowing how much effort goes into growing a single fruit or vegetable can make us more grateful for our produce and as a result, eat more conservatively and overall less wasteful.
Do you garden? If so, let me know what you grow. Tweet me @harleypasternak.
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