Vegetable gardening: 5 reasons to do it, beyond the vegetables

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Some people are just born to garden. They find satisfaction, even uplift, in mucking around in the soil and getting things to grow. Every spring, about this time, they put on the broad-brimmed hat and the pastel gloves — and, if they’re serious, those neoprene knee pads — and break out the trowel.

I am emphatically not one of those people.

But here’s the thing. I may not love to garden, but I do love to eat. That’s what got me gardening in the first place, and along the way some of the other benefits sneaked up on me. I haven’t quite made it to uplift, but I am nevertheless all in on growing vegetables in your backyard. (Or any other part of your yard — I support full frontal gardening — or in containers on a fire escape if that’s the most outdoor “space” you’ve got.)

It was vegetables that lured me into growing vegetables, but even when the fruits of my labor were pretty lousy — and who among us hasn’t grown woody green beans or bitter eggplants? — there was way more payoff than I expected.

Here are five reasons to grow vegetables, besides the actual vegetables (although those matter, and my eight top picks are on the record).

There are scientists who actually study the benefits of spending time in green spaces, but I don’t think anyone really needs to be convinced. Sure, you can read a paper about how being in nature, even for short periods of time, reduces stress, or improves mood, but if you’ve ever simply put your phone down and gone for a walk, you know exactly what it feels like.

It’s worth noting that much of what passes for science in the gardening arena is just surveys comparing people who garden to people who don’t, and we all know what kind of correlation/causation havoc that kind of thing can wreak. Which means that you have to take conclusions like, “A regular dose of gardening can improve public health” with a grain of salt.

Still, the most rigorous review I could find, published in 2020, found that overall, gardening is — and I’m paraphrasing here — pretty good, with a smorgasbord of benefits for health and well-being. Little of this is ironclad, but weigh it against the harms, which are … wait … there are none! Easiest risk/benefit calculation ever.

2. You engage in physical activity.

While I can envision a kind of gardening strenuous enough to make you break a sweat, that’s not the kind I do. I’m not even sure I do the kind the American Heart Association had in mind when they classified gardening as a “moderate-intensity aerobic activity,” in a class with brisk walking and ballroom dancing. But even the kind I do, characterized by frequent breaks to admire my handiwork or inspect an unusual insect, is definitely physical activity.

A detailed analysis of five gardening activities — digging, hoeing, raking, troweling and weeding — found that gardening uses a variety of both upper- and lower-body muscles. It will surprise no one who’s ever held a shovel that digging uses more of them than anything else you’re likely to do in a garden. Should you tackle that task with enthusiasm, each of those muscles will make its presence felt the next morning.

But even if you don’t, you’ll benefit from gardening, because just about any increase in activity is good for you.

The discovery that the adult brain is still plastic — it can continue to change and adapt — has opened up a brave new rationale for learning new things as we get older. It’s reasonable to conclude, from the large body of evidence on how acquiring a new skill can affect cognition, that aging brains — and every single one of us has one — thrive on fresh challenges.

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks has written about this in a way that is moving and compelling in several books and a 2011 essay. But read him at your peril; afterward, you won’t be satisfied with just building a raised bed; you’ll also take up the guitar and try to learn Swahili.

My aging brain has found that it, and I, are happiest on the steep part of the learning curve. I still work hard at improving at the skills I’ve worked on all my life — writing, golf, diplomacy, pie crust — but you learn more doing something for the very first time than you do in any subsequent iteration.

4. You connect to your community.

When my husband, Kevin, and I left Manhattan for two wooded acres on Cape Cod, one of the first things we did was join the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners (annual dues: $5). We met people we most likely wouldn’t have met any other way, some of whom have now been our friends for over a decade. And it’s not just clubs; there are plant sales and talks at the local library. Also seed swaps, which are a sore point for me because of the one where I thought the pumpkin seeds were the snacks.

And, if your community is anything like mine, there’s a vibrant barter economy. The problem with growing food is that you have none at all until the very moment you have much too much. Plant a good-sized asparagus patch and, a few springs down the road, you’ll have lots of friends — some of whom might grow peaches, or keep chickens, or catch fish.

5. You introduce kids to vegetables.

There’s some evidence from school gardens that participating in the growing of vegetables makes kids more receptive to the eating of them, and I think the results jibe with the experience of anyone who’s ever gleaned dinner from the landscape. Think back to any experience you’ve had getting food with your own two hands: Did you grow a tomato or catch a trout or find a supersecret morel spot? Did that food feel different from other food?

I ask a lot of people that question, and every single one — literally every single one — says yes. (And I have to work in that I wrote a whole book about the good things that happen when you tap into that phenomenon.)

Food we get firsthand is surprisingly compelling, and I think kids feel it every bit as much as adults do. The fennel, or the carrot, or even the zucchini you’re invested in is way more appealing than the one from the store so, yeah, maybe I do want to taste it.

There’s a bonus reason, too, for which there’s no evidence at all: Gardening gets you out of your own head. How much time do you spend worrying about covid-19, or Ukraine, or our malfunctioning political system? Not to mention the mortgage, the funny noise the car is making, or your column that’s due tomorrow. Going outdoors and spending time in the dirt is an antidote; for a little while, you get to do something positive and constructive. Even without uplift, it’s downright therapeutic. Besides, what’s the downside? Cucumbers?

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