They call it "horticultural therapy" and the benefits include "improvement in attention, lessening of stress, modulation of agitation, lowering of as-needed medications and antipsychotics and reduction of falls," according to a 2012 study of the elderly published in the Psychiatry Investigations journal.
But why wait until you retire to tap the benefits of gardening? Even time-pressed, land-poor nurses can experience the joy of gardening on a small scale.
"Even if you only grow one basil plant, you'll get a sense of personal reward in taking care of it and watching it grow," noted Don Fike, a straw bale gardening expert who holds a Bachelor of Science in plant sciences with a concentration in organic crop production from the University of Tennessee.
And even such a limited effort can help you reap the benefits of seasonal eating and reduce your carbon footprint, too. "That one basil plant will provide you fresh basil that will bring out the flavor in another dish you make," added Fike, who works as both a community and urban gardener for a farm-to-table restaurant provider. "That may be the most appealing reward of small-scale edible gardening -- when you cook yourself or someone else a dinner with something you've grown included in the ingredients."
Along the way to that delicious meal, you'll also gain stress relief, as a Dutch study published in the Journal of Health Psychology can attest. It determined that 30 minutes of outdoor gardening after a stressful task rebooted salivary cortisol levels, proving that gardening can promote relief from acute stress. A study out of Stockholm also showed regular gardening reduces a person over 60's risk of stroke and heart attack. And if you haven't quite found a way to get out in the sun for that 30 minutes a day that aids in Vitamin D absorption and staves off heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers? Well, put on some gardening gloves and get to it.
Once you're sold on the idea, don't backslide when you realize you don't have much time or available land for gardening. Instead, follow these tips:
Choose a small-scale "farming" method. To grow food, your yield will be limited by your container size, according to Fike. "If all you have is a balcony or deck, containers are perfect," he said. "If you have more space, a raised bed, even if it's as small as 3' x 3' or 4' x 4', is a great way to go. Straw bale gardening is also a good option for gardeners with limited space. But you have to make sure you follow all the directions. They're not hard, but they're very specific." If you're handy around the house, you can construct your own raised bed. If hammer and nails aren't your strength, a purchased pre-packaged bed may be a little overpriced, but the convenience can be worth it, said Fike.
Grow by bale. "Square foot gardening" following the ideas of humanitarian Mel Bartholomew is one way to make the most of limited time and space. "Straw bale gardening" is another. Basically, you condition a bale of hay and then plant right inside it. If you're going to attempt it, while the process is simple, Fike warns that you can't deviate from the step-by-step. "You really need to follow the instructions," he says.
Choose a variety you can harvest more than once. To expand the benefits of growing a garden, steer away from single-harvest plants like carrots or broccoli in favor of vegetables or herbs like basil, grape tomatoes or kale. That way you'll have something to pick and possibly eat over the course of a few months.
Start with transplants from the store. The first time out, let someone else start your seedlings for you, except for peas and beans. Local nurseries and even big box stores have ready-to-go plants in six packs or singles. "After growing for a while you'll want the variety and the cost savings of starting your own plants from seed, but to begin you don't need a packet of 100 seeds when you're only going to plant a container," Fike emphasizes.
And don't think you need to start in early spring to reap the benefits of gardening. You can start plenty of vegetables as late as August, or plant kale, lettuce or radishes for an early fall harvest. That's the great thing about small-scale gardening. Even the weeding and watering can wait if you're having a busy week, and it will grow while you're at work nurturing others.
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