Start a Garden and Harvest the Health Benefits

The perks of gardening go far beyond whatever you may grow and eat.


Photo by: kupicoo


As the weather begins to warm (March, you’re still planning to go out like a lamb, right?) and the first signs of spring tentatively peep out of the ground, many of us take our cue to start rooting around for our garden tools.

If you are not yet a gardener, why not make this spring the season you try out your green thumb? Even if you live in a city and have no yard at your disposal, you may be able to give it a whirl by finding a small plot in a community garden or even stashing a box on your windowsill. The rewards may include far more than whatever you manage to grow.

Studies have shown that gardening has all sorts of health benefits, from boosting your mood and improving your diet, to helping you stay fit and trim. So Healthy Eats reached out to Sharon Palmer, RD, a plant-based food and nutrition expert and the author of The Plant-Powered Diet, Plant-Powered for Life and The Plant-Powered Blog, to find out more.

How is tending a garden beneficial for your overall health?

Gardening is good for your overall health in many ways. First of all, it is a form of physical activity that contributes to your overall physical fitness levels. Secondly, it can boost mood-enhancing hormones. Studies show that gardening can increase the release of serotonin, which has an anti-depressant effect, while decreasing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Thirdly, it can increase your exposure to health-promoting vitamin D levels we obtain from the sun. And fourthly, studies show that when you garden, you increase your consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables.

What are some of the benefits in terms of weight maintenance?

When you increase your physical activity, you can better balance your energy input and output to promote a healthier weight. Plus, when you increase your consumption of healthy plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, you can promote a healthier weight. Plant foods are rich in fiber and nutrients for a relatively small calorie level, meaning you can feel satisfied with fewer calories.

How do you suggest people new to gardening get started?

The most important thing to do is to just get started! The USDA has some helpful gardening guides. Look at specific gardening recommendations for your region. For example, I live in Southern California and I need to get my plants into my garden before it gets really hot, so in March I am planting my vegetables. I also have different growing seasons and plants that do really well in my area: Cool weather is lettuces and greens, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli; hot weather is peppers, eggplant, squash, corn, and tomatoes.

You will learn a little bit more each year on what works the best. If you are new to gardening, first try a container garden — even a large pot. You can try vegetables starts rather than growing from seed if you are new to gardening. Try composting your leftover kitchen scraps as organic fertilizer. Harvest your vegetables when they are ripe for maximum nutritional benefits, and remember to use those nutrient-rich greens: broccoli and cauliflower leaves, turnip greens, beet greens. 

What do you think is the most important thing for rookie gardeners to keep in mind?

People who grow vegetables eat more vegetables. And they enjoy them at their nutrient and flavor peak. In addition, gardening is the ultimate local food choice, reducing your carbon footprint. By gardening, you can fill your diet with a variety of whole plant foods — greens, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, parsley, carrots, beets, cucumbers, squash and more. We know that a diet filled with these foods is linked with a lower risk of disease and obesity.

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Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer.

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