By Sara Bruskin
Gardens get us outside, nourish us and bring serenity to our busy lives. But are we optimizing all the health benefits of the humble garden? With a bit of mindful planning, your garden can be a powerful tool for reaching health goals.
Quench the “Flame” in Inflamed
From psoriasis to arthritis, inflammation is the root cause of many painful conditions. Eating garden-fresh vegetables helps combat this, as they’re rich in antioxidants and nutrients. Harvard Health Publishing singles out tomatoes and leafy greens as common garden staples that are especially conducive to an anti-inflammatory diet. Berries are particularly rich in antioxidants. Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries all thrive in our climate, so consider adding some bushes and brambles to your garden.
Boulder herbalist Brigitte Mars encourages people to grow yarrow and chamomile for their anti-inflammatory properties. “Pick them when they’re just about to flower and dry them to make tea or tinctures,” she says. Tinctures are especially effective, as they render plants in a stable form that retains all their herbal goodness. Classes on tincture making are available locally at Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary, Three Leaf Farm and through Mars.
Stress can have devastating effects on health, but many garden herbs soothe both body and mind. Lavender and chamomile are go-to calming agents that make tasty teas and tinctures. You can also make eye pillows and aromatherapy oils with them.
Catnip contains natural sedatives that help you relax. “Catnip is in the mint family, so you can add it to pesto and salads,” Mars says, or make a tincture or tea with it. Hops contain similar sedative compounds and the vine happily grows on trellises and fences. It’s a bitter herb, though, so you may prefer it as a tincture rather than a tea.
Staying hydrated is essential to stress management. According to a study published in Frontiers in Physiology, even mild dehydration increases cortisol levels, which increases stress. If you have a hard time drinking plain water, add cucumber and mint to make it more enticing or toss in a few of those fresh berries you grew.
Move or Meditate
Our brains form habits that are strongly tied to our surroundings, so it’s easier to find exercise motivation in a space where we move, and mindfulness in a place where we seek serenity. We already have established psychological associations between gardening and exercise, and gardening and peacefulness.
Take advantage of those connections and set aside a spot in your garden for practicing yoga, tai chi or Pilates, or add a weight-lifting bench or a meditation area. Grow fragrant plants with uplifting scents by your exercise space. Mars recommends lemon balm for attention and focus, and spearmint or peppermint for an energy boost. For sore muscles, grow rosemary to infuse into massage oils or add the dried herb to Epsom-salt baths.
English lavender and agastaches could enhance a meditation space, and as a bonus, you’ll hear the hum of happy bees pollinating these perfumed plants.
Gardening itself is a workout, especially when dealing with stubborn weeds. If you’re physically able, ditch the kneeling pad and squat while tending to plants—squats stretch the lower back, open the hip flexors and increase circulation.
Many people dutifully test their soil to determine the proper nutrients to add, but they often neglect their own nutritional needs. Some may have vitamin deficiencies that can cause chronic fatigue, muscle pain, hair loss and more. A simple blood test can help identify deficiencies, so use the onset of the growing season as an annual reminder to get checked by a doctor. Then research which foods to grow to help resolve any deficiencies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, iron and vitamins B6, C and D are the four most common deficiencies. Our bodies more easily absorb heme iron—the type found in animal protein—but non-heme iron from vegetables is found in fennel (the seeds are extremely high in iron, but the bulbs have some, too), asparagus, basil, leafy greens, parsley, leeks, peas and garlic.
Vitamin B6 is abundant in meat and fish, but several plants contain significant amounts, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach and the seeds of sunflowers.
Citrus fruit gets all the glory when it comes to vitamin C. Historically, sailors fended off scurvy with limes and lemons since fresh vegetables perished quickly on seafaring vessels, but your garden can be a far better source of vitamin C. Plant kale, bell peppers, broccoli, banana peppers, bitter melon and Brussels sprouts for a C boost.
Gardening outside prompts your body to produce vitamin D through sun exposure. Prolonged exposure can put you at risk for skin cancer, however, so strap on a hat and let mushrooms make vitamin D for you.
Mushrooms are high in ergosterol, a precursor of vitamin D2. Ultraviolet light from the sun turns ergosterol into vitamin D2. Exposing mushrooms to ultraviolet light after harvesting them further enriches the fungi with vitamin D2. You’ll need to grow mushrooms in a mostly shady, moist area or in a controlled environment. If you’ve never grown mushrooms, Harlequin’s Gardens offers a class on mushroom cultivation and identification each spring (visit www.harlequinsgardens.com/classes for a schedule).
Everyone’s health concerns are unique, so determine your wellness goals before the growing season starts. With a little forethought and research, you can supercharge your garden’s impact on your health.
Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary classes
Three Leaf Farm classes
Brigitte Mars herbal classes
Gardening and farm to table classes
Growing Gardens classes