Gardening for Health (and sanity) 

Trim your waistline by trimming your trees

People have always sought the sun (especially in March), but it isn't the only reason gardeners construct gardens in their minds while they wait for warmer weather. We all garden for a variety of reasons: to gain a sense of continuity, to seek beauty or to make contact with nature. As city dwellers, our chaotic lives have us yearning for a place where we are in control, where order is created, and where peace is found. Gardening can be akin to sowing sanity in your own backyard.

My mother spent thousands of hours pulling weeds and smiling. As a child, I worried for her sanity; she seemed to be having fun. How could weeding be fun? It wasn't until I became an adult myself that I grew to appreciate what weeding really meant to my mother-it was her refuge, a peaceful place for reflection, and most of all, meant time away from us kids.

Some say gardeners dig in the dirt to nurture things, others say we arrange plants because we have a strong need to create. For the creative among us, gardening is the ultimate in performance art. A garden delights more senses than any other art. You can smell it, touch it, listen to it, look at it-even eat it.

Traditionally viewed, gardening was seen as a leisurely activity for the upper class that was meant to soothe the spirit. Today, anyone can garden. These pleasure plots don't have to be big, even a sunny corner of the yard or terra cotta pots filled with plants on the back porch will do. The satisfaction and fun gained from turning a weed patch into a work of art is reason enough to get down and dirty. But who would have guessed that gardening would be considered an environmentally correct hobby? Well maintained landscapes and gardens help the environment by trapping dust, controlling erosion, reducing noise and glare, purifying water and air, modifying temperatures and improving soil conditions. A mere 50-square-foot lawn produces enough oxygen for a family of four. Growing your own air, what a novel idea!

Today gardening is seen by doctors and horticultural therapists as a healthy way to get some exercise. By stepping up your pace, researchers estimate that gardening activities burn up to 300 calories per hour. It's time to turn off your leaf blower and grab a rake, as raking uses up 127 calories in 30 minutes (for a 140-pound individual). Pushing a reel mower (no motor) eats up a whopping 191 calories, while weeding, planting trees and manually trimming shrubs all use about the same amount: 143 calories in 30 minutes. Digging, laying sod and hauling branches also gobble up 159 calories in a half hour.

Gardening rewards us time and time again with physical exercise and personal satisfaction. It's an ideal form of movement because it combines strength, endurance and flexibility exercises. Think of all that kneeling, twisting, bending, pulling, stretching, lifting and carrying we do in the garden. Many gardening activities are actually weight-bearing exercises-i.e., they help build strong bones and muscles to combat osteoporosis.

To create an optimal gardening exercise routine, schedule a 30- to 60-minute work session two to three times a week instead of saving all your yard work for a weekend marathon. That overuses muscles and puts you in the chiropractor's office by Monday. Avoid strains by stretching before you start your gardening activities, just like you would prior to a gym workout.

Mental health experts have learned that gardening and even being out in nature reduces stress and decreases blood pressure. Simply viewing all that wonderful greenery increases brain activity that in turn improves mood and is especially helpful for combating depression. At Texas A&M University, researchers found that hospitalized patients whose windows overlook a landscape recovered from surgery quicker than those without such access.

Henry David Thoreau understood the harmonizing influence of nature, but the medical world has only recently embraced the importance of plants and gardening in the healing process. Using horticultural activities and plants as tools to reach therapeutic goals is what horticultural therapy programs are all about. These programs are offered to patients and inmates at hospitals, rehabilitation centers, senior centers and prisons.

Perhaps the furthest place to go for your next relaxing vacation is your own backyard-it might be just what the doctor ordered.

We all garden for our own reasons. Searching the writings of Jung or Freud does not explain why people garden. Nor can the answer be found in one of the kazillion gardening books and magazines out there. Gardening guru Gertrude Jekyll summed up the purpose of gardening when she said, "A garden is for its owner's pleasure." But it's more than that: gardening gives meaning to life and may even be, for some, their sole spiritual sustenance. For me, I've come to the weighty conclusion that I weed, therefore I am. (My mother would be so proud.)

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension office in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: sbell@uidaho.edu.

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