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Gardening Helps You Grow — At Any Age

It’s about so much more than just reaping what you sow

By Rashelle Brown

Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles by Rashelle Brown that we'll be featuring in April about the many benefits of gardening.

Everyone knows gardening is a healthy, lifelong hobby that's a good source of physical activity as well as a source of fresh cut flowers or homegrown food. But to capture the essence of gardening, think back to your childhood — way back, to kindergarten or preschool.

A group of young people gathered around an older adult showing off small seedlings. Next Avenue, Gardening exercise
Barbara Masoner, co-director of Grow Local Colorado, sharing wisdom with future gardeners  |  Credit: Grow Local Colorado

Think about the day your teacher gave you a paper cup, a bag of dirt, a spoon and a single bean seed. More dirt probably ended up on the table than in the cup, and when you over-watered your bean (which you always did) a muddy pool formed on top and ran down the sides. Still, magically, a few days later, a bright green sprout poked its head up, just like the teacher said it would. You were awestruck, mystified, ecstatic. You had created life!

In this series of articles on gardening, we aim to help you recapture some of that childlike wonder as well as arm you with practical tips and resources you can take into the upcoming gardening season.

And in this story, we outline the many benefits of gardening for people over 50 and hear inspiring tales from a couple of longtime gardeners. 

Gardening's Many Benefits

In 2020, a group of British scholars published a comprehensive review of the impacts of gardening on health and well-being. Looking at 77 different studies, the reviewers tallied more than 35 different markers that were positively affected by gardens and gardening.

Having a garden can help foster a sense of purpose, and watching it grow imparts a real sense of accomplishment.

To begin with, gardening is a great way to increase physical activity, which can range from seated, gentle movements for indoor gardeners and herb growers, to strenuous digging, tilling and hoeing for those planting a traditional vegetable plot or perennial garden.

The British review found a positive association between gardening and a number of markers associated with chronic lifestyle conditions, including blood glucose levels, heart rate variability, blood lipids and stress hormone levels.

Gardening outdoors also increases exposure to sunlight, something deemed essential, yet that we tend to get less and less of as we age. This exposure not only helps our bodies produce Vitamin D and lower blood pressure but can also boost mood. Not only that, but research has found a connection between the microbes in soil and improved stress coping abilities.

Gardening Keeps You Engaged

The mental health benefits don't stop there, though. Having a garden that needs your attention can help foster a sense of purpose, and watching it grow imparts a real sense of accomplishment.

"Once you retire, all of a sudden your purpose of why you're here [changes] — you feel kind of lost, like you don't know what you're supposed to do," Barbara Masoner, 64, of Denver said in an interview. "But gardening is a wonderful way to stay engaged."

"I love being with people in a garden."

And stay engaged, she does.

Masoner is co-director of Grow Local Colorado, an organization with 17 community gardens in the Denver area. Masoner and the organization's many other volunteers meet weekly to tend their plots as they exchange tips, troubleshoot problems and share recipes. As vegetables ripen, each garden group takes their bounty to a local food pantry or other organization in need.

According to Masoner, "Taking the vegetables to food pantries is extremely rewarding. People just light up when they see fresh food coming in." 

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Grow Your Own: Healthy Food, Strong Friendships

For Steve Kinney, 71, of Walker, Minn., gardening is all about the process and the bounty.

"I always really envied farmers because I didn't grow up on a farm, but I always wanted to do it, so this was my way to get into it," Kinney said over a cup of tea in my kitchen one cold March afternoon.

Kinney, who has been growing his own vegetables for around 40 years particularly likes the quality of what he grows in his 300 square-foot plot.

A gardening volunteer holding a bounty of lettuce from a garden. Next Avenue, Gardening exercise
A young gardener reaping the harvest at one of the 17 community gardens operated by Grow Local Colorado  |  Credit: Grow Local Colorado

"I don't use any chemicals or ever spray anything on my plants. Sometimes you know you're going to lose a few, but that's okay," he said.

Social connection is another huge benefit of gardening. "I love being with people in a garden," Masoner said, "especially during COVID, because it was one of the few ways we could still get together. I always learn something, whether it's how to grow something or how to prepare it, there's just all kinds of good information I get from other gardeners."

Even on his secluded homestead in northern Minnesota, Kinney connects with friends and neighbors through his garden. In his view, "Food is the universal language, and sharing that with friends and family produces the real gardening connection."

He recounted the story of how a close friend and his entire family fell seriously ill with COVID-19 last fall. They were too sick to bring in the garden harvest, so Kinney and his wife, Donna, picked and canned it for them, adding in some of their own canned goods for variety.

"I can't express what a wonderful feeling that was, to really be able to help," Kinney said.

Then, too, there is the matter of self-sustainability — that satisfaction of growing what you eat.

"I keep it pretty basic these days," Kinney said, "but I grow enough so that we never have to buy canned tomatoes, carrots, beets, green beans, pickles or squash. It's self-sustaining, a little bit, so there's the survival aspect, but it's just very enjoyable to see those plants grow. I get a real tranquil feeling when I'm out in the garden."

Tranquility, movement, connection, community, healthy food, fresh cut flowers, sunshine and that childlike wonder at the miracle of life. That's the essence of gardening.

Now, isn't it time to dig out your trowels and trays and give those ubiquitous seed catalogs a closer look?

Rashelle Brown
Rashelle Brown is a long-time fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of bylines in print and online. She is a regular contributor for NextAvenue and the Active Network, and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN. Read More
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