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Permission to play in the dirt.

By Amy Pennington
March 29, 2021
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Gardening can be a real chore. There is soil to dig, materials to haul, plants to wrestle with — but most of us approach that "work" with delight because we know that the time invested results in some sweet rewards.

Dedicating time to cultivate your garden — whether that's indoors, in your yard, or in a community plot — has obvious benefits like vases full of flowers and bowls full of tomatoes. But what about the "invisible" perks that you can't eat or smell? Longtime gardeners have known this secret forever: Gardening is good for the soul.

Here are five ways gardening does more for you than put food on the table.

1. Relieves stress

Anecdotally, we all know gardening relieves stress (unless the snails eat all of the lettuce overnight), but does this physical activity actually create calm?

According to a study on the role of nature and health published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), "exposure to natural environments protects people against the impact of environmental stressors and offer physiological, emotional, and attention restoration." Being surrounded by plants connects us to other living things, so even windowsill 'farmers' can reap the reward of working with plants. Growing plants allows for a sense of community that can lead to feelings of security and calm.

"For me, spending time with plants is a massive reset. My stress drops precipitously as my emotional horizons open up into the ecological community we all belong to, whether we think about it or not," says Annie Novak, head farmer and cofounder at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, N.Y. Even astronauts note that growing food brings them joy; there is a program in place for growing plants during space missions.

2. Cultivates healthier habits

Involving kids in the garden is thought to inspire an interest in food: Let them choose what to grow and send them out to harvest. This personal connection with their food source inspires a relationship to their food. "Children with more gardening experience had greater vegetable exposure and higher vegetable preference and consumed more vegetables compared with children who reported less gardening experience," notes a study in the National Library of Medicine.

If you want your kids to love gardening, make sure to keep it fun for all ages. Younger kids can manage small tasks that inspire their interest, such as planting and harvesting carrots — while older children can take on plants that need more long-term care, such as tomatoes. Allowing children to nurture plants throughout their life cycle not only cultivates green thumbs, it can also help validate their feeling of self-worth and achievement, introducing them to a lifelong relationship with nature. Not a terrible way to spend a summer!

3. Builds your biome

As Hippocrates is credited with saying, "All disease begins in the gut." Building and maintaining a healthy gut is a top health trend, and people everywhere are adding probiotics to their diet and discovering new foods, like kimchi. We all know it's smart to eat more vegetables, but how else can gardening benefit your gut health? Here's a tip: Look down.

Soil and the human gut contain approximately the same number of active microorganisms, though the human gut microbiome diversity is only 10% that of soils. We all descended from populations of hunter-gathers who were well known for their ability to live sustainably off the land and who, until recently, were in close contact with soil. They also had a gut biome to show for it, with "higher species richness than that of westernized humans," notes a paper published in the US Library of National Medicine. The onset of urbanization and commercial agriculture has since removed us from our more land-based lifestyles and our microbiome has suffered for it.

We know for sure soil contributes to the human gut microbiome — it has been essential to our evolution. It can be surmised, then, that playing in the dirt can influence our gut health in a positive way.

4. Helps you age with ease

As we age, physical tasks can become more challenging and mobility tends to decline as we move less. Gardening is a great way to incorporate low-intensity physical activity into daily life, and people who are stationary can mix soil or transplant sprouted plants from a seated position.

In a study done by the American Society for Horticultural Science, researchers conclude that several garden tasks with moderate physical intensity "provide physical and mental health benefits such as lower total cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower mortality, better hand function ability, and higher bone mineral density for adults over 65 years old."

Additionally, gardening in community leads to better psychological well-being overall and better social integration. This is particularly important as we age, as it is easy to become isolated and sedentary.

5. Connects you with your food

We have become so accustomed to seeing produce at grocery stores that many of us don't know what an actual broccoli plant looks like, or how leeks are grown. Growing your own food allows for a visual education that can feel fascinating. Planting seeds, that break soil as sprouts, that put out leaves, that make a flower, that turns into fruit or flower is a life cycle gardeners of any age can observe.

To grow food at home, one needs to monitor sun, water, nutrients, and the plants themselves — it takes time and attention to raise healthy plants. This process of natural observation not only connects gardeners with nature and seasonal cycles, but it provides visual context for how food is grown. This proximity to the growth cycle encourages gardeners to play with their food.

Why not eat the beet tops sautéed in some garlic while you're waiting for the root itself to form and be harvested? When kale flowers, those broccoli-esque shoots can be roasted or grilled as a side dish. Even the large leaves from zucchini plants can be used in meals — they make great insulators for the tops of gratins or can be chopped and sautéed or added to soups.

This invitation to experiment with harvesting at different cycles of the plants life connects us with food, with our particular microclimates and with a subtle sense of purpose that is satisfying.

Whether you're cultivating your windowsill farm, working with a few containers on a balcony, or digging in an open field of garden beds, there are many great reasons to get your hands in the dirt.