by Dr. Rivers Woodward, MD
Few things fill me with a greater sense of promise and excitement than new seedlings springing forth, each with their own unique character. It seems that you simply have to turn your back, and kale seeds will shoot upwards with eager abandon, height often outpacing stem strength as they race for the sunlight. Nasturtiums and snap peas, on the other hand, will cause you to spend two weeks wondering if you did something wrong, if they are ever going to come, then one day the sturdy little plant appears – it has no hurry. Nasturtium teaches me patience, kale reminds me to “just go for it.”
Renowned physician Oliver Sacks once said “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
Researchers since have tried to find the answer to the healing power of gardens. Studies in Japan have shown that simply sitting and observing plants reduces stress, anger, sadness, as well as blood pressure and muscle tension. Other studies have shown that plants and gardens strategically placed in post-operative wards can reduce the amount of pain medications needed following surgery.
The scientific community continues to puzzle over how exactly gardens and nature improve well-being. Perhaps one day I will be able to write a prescription and your insurance company will pay for you to take a cherry tomato plant home – but I don’t plan to hold my breath for this. Fortunately, we live in a part of the world where green space and knowing how to grow your own food are a part of who we are.
While some of the healing power of gardening may be difficult to study, we do know that the activity of gardening has many beneficial components:
Exercise: Gardening does not have to be high-exertion, but it can be. Hauling soil, digging, or simple weeding between rows can be an excellent source of exercise as well as movement for stiff joints.
Vitamin D: Gardens don’t do well living only indoors – people don’t either. Sunlight is important for our health and can contribute greatly to positive mood and energy.
Nutrition: In my work with picky eaters and kids who are overweight, there are few strategies more powerful to get them to try a new vegetable than if they planted it themselves. A thriving vegetable garden can provide an abundance of healthy vegetables that both saves us money as well as keeps us away from the drive-thru menu.
Connection: We know that feeling connection is important for people’s health. Connection to the earth and the natural world, a strong physical community, or a robust spiritual community all contribute greatly to knowing “we are not alone.”
With our long growing season in this region, it is not too late to plant a garden. It doesn’t need to have a fence or raised beds and you don’t need a tractor. A simple black plastic pot with holes in the bottom will do the trick.
Your health and the health of those around you will benefit from extra time outside and the promise that comes with thriving plants. I encourage those of you who are gardeners to find a neighbor who doesn’t have a garden and invite them to join you – even better if you can find a kid who is a picky eater. Those of you who think that your thumb is any color but green, go find your neighbor with the beautiful flowers out front or the rows of squash already planted and ask if you can help and learn from them.
For your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing, I recommend the following.
Rx: Spend 20 minutes in a garden once daily, 90 days, unlimited refills.
Dr. Woodward is the newest member of the Blue Ridge Community Health team in Lake Lure.