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Healthier Gardeners: Harvest High

Science is starting to catch up with what gardeners already know – growing food and caring for a garden is hugely beneficial for the body, mind and spirit.

Ketah Silvester
Ketah Silvester turned to her garden to help her community through a crisis.

Research is still unravelling the mysteries of the human microbiome, but it’s certain that getting your hands dirty in the soil is really good for you. According to the Austrian Institute of Soil Research, soil and the human gut contain roughly the same amount of microorganisms. However human gut microbiome diversity is only 10 percent that of soil, and even that has decreased dramatically with the hygiene associated with today’s lifestyle. One 2019 study noted that soil ‘was essential in the evolution of the human gut microbiome and it is a major inoculant and provider of beneficial gut microorganisms.’

What We Know

The physical health benefits associated with being active in the garden are well known; burning energy, boosting strength, increasing endurance and promoting better sleep are some, but there are many other health benefits aside from physical also associated with gardening.

Gardening comes with a side helping of fresh air and increased levels of vitamin D. And given almost one third of Australians are now deficient in vitamin D, the exposure to the sun, done responsibly, comes with all sorts of advantages. The fresh air is especially important during winter, when rooms tend to be sealed against the cold, and fires and other heat sources compromise indoor air quality.

People suffering illness or injury may not be able to tend a patch, but research shows even being able to see a natural environment can speed recovery. The 1984 hospital study published in Science revealed surgical patients who had a view of nature had shorter post-operative hospital stays and demanded less painkillers than their less- fortunate peers who had views of the building’s brick walls.

Feeling Good

The mechanisms by which gardening boosts mood are still under investigation, though a study by the University of Bristol found certain bacteria in soil have the same effect on neurons that antidepressants have – stimulating the production of serotonin.

Gardening can also increase our dopamine levels, which is a chemical released by the brain and makes us feel good. Harvesting our own freshly grown fruit and vegetable can create a rush of dopamine providing an intense feeling of reward. This ‘harvest high’ is the reason that picking the first mango of the season, gathering homegrown strawberries or unearthing a potato feels so very satisfying.

fresh-produce
pots
raised-bed
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Clockwise from top left You don’t need a lot of space to grow fresh food; Raised beds are removable and perfect for people who are renting; There are not many better feelings than harvesting food from your own garden; Pots and forward planning allow people living in apartments to reap the health benefits of growing food.

Stress Relief

Internationally, Australians have a reputation for being laidback and lackadaisical, but behind closed doors we’re an uptight bunch. A 2015 survey by the Australian

Psychological Society found that the majority of respondents said stress impacted their physical (72%) and mental (64%) health. And after the previous two years of anxiety and disruption, research has found that as many as four in 10 workers are now experiencing burnout as a result.

Instinctively, gardeners know time spent tending to plants can take the edge off acute stress. Indeed, relaxation and stress relief are two of the main reasons people cite as taking up gardening in the first place. But now there’s mounting evidence to support what we’ve all known to be anecdotally true.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology provided the first experimental evidence for the effectiveness of gardening as a stress-relieving intervention. Researchers put 30 allotment gardeners under pressure with a cognitive task that artificially deflated their results, causing stress and then asked them to do two different activities; time spent in the garden, and time reading a book. They then tested their stress hormone levels and self reported mood before and after the two activities. ‘Gardening promoted stronger psycho-physiological recovery from stress than reading,’ the research concluded. ‘After 30 minutes gardening … levels of salivary cortisol and self-reported positive mood had returned to baseline.’

A more recent study looked at whether gardening activities could buffer the mental health consequences of forced home confinement during the first large-scale lockdown in Italy. It found that gardening led to lower levels of psychopathological distress, making it an important way to stay connected to nature when parks, public gardens and other options were closed.

Mental Health

While research proving the benefits of therapeutic horticulture remains in its infancy, there’s plenty of science that shows gardeners have significantly lower overall depression scores than non-gardeners.

Rosanne Parker is one of the green thumbs behind Joe’s Connected Garden in South Australia which grows 500 varieties of fruit across interlinked community gardens. She says she started gardening to help manage depression.

‘For me, both exercise and sunshine were way better than any medication and when you grow food you get something divine to eat at the end,’ she said.

The social inclusion that is part and parcel of places like Joe’s Connected Garden may also boost subjective wellbeing, given the known links between poverty and mental ill health.

‘There’s a lot of community building in what we do and being located in one of the poorest postcodes in Australia, there is no shortage of people with social, mental-health and financial problems who feel very marginalised,’ says Parker.

Growing Community

Gardening offers ways to beat isolation and strengthen social ties. Planting on a nature strip, sharing produce or mucking in at the local community garden can increase social connections and provide support that’s conducive to improved wellbeing.

Four in five participants in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney’s Community Greening project, for instance, reported they’d built stronger relationships by socialising and meeting neighbours for the first time. During lockdowns, social media also emerged as a tool for connection, with gardeners swapping tips, ideas and even produce.

Gardening further promotes broader community resilience. When flooding hit southeast Queensland earlier this year, closing arterial roads and sending some suburbs underwater, much of Brisbane’s westside became cut off from supermarkets and other suppliers.

Living on the newly-created ‘island’ of Mount Crosby, Dr Ketah Silvester used produce from her two-year-old food forest to help feed her community.

‘We went into the garden multiple times a day and just took boot loads of all of our edibles up to the corner store because their shelves were bare,’ she says. ‘These are just plants that you can grow like in your everyday garden, but when an emergency hits, you can eat these ones.’

Shifting Perspective

Creating shifts in perspective is one of the subtler ways in which gardening promotes wellbeing. Opportunities for mindfulness and acceptance, along with gentle zen-like lessons, emerge all the time in the garden.

By transforming our relationship with weeds, we can begin to see other potential benefits such as food and medicine, while abandoning our time-consuming and frustrating efforts trying to eradicate them.

It is well known that the fresher food is, the more nutrients it contains. According to a University of California study, vegetables such as peas and beans loose between 15–55 percent of their vitamin C within a week of being harvested. And some plants such as spinach can lose up to 90 percent within just 24 hours. So eating produce picked within hours, if not minutes, of harvesting ensures the highest nutrients are made available to you and your family.

Better tasting, higher nutritional value and scientifically proven to be better for you – every house in Australia should be growing at least some of its own food.

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