Claude Monet once said, “my garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” Indeed, the lavish, colorful gardens on the grounds of his home in the south of France are a sight to behold.
But there’s also a humble beauty about the everyday backyard garden, whether it’s a vegetable patch, a small plot of herbs, or planters brimming with flowers. Gardening has long been embraced as a relaxing pastime, and in recent months many have turned to this time-honored activity as a respite during an uncertain historical moment.
“What people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real,” says Jennifer Atkinson, senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Washington. “We spend all day on screens. We can’t be around each other at restaurants or ballparks. We can’t even give hugs or shake hands. So all of a sudden, the appeal of sinking your hands in the dirt and using your body in ways that matter, that becomes irresistible.”
Not only is gardening a satisfying and family-friendly activity, but it also offers a number of physical and mental health benefits. For starters, it may help you live longer. Older adults in so-called blue zones (parts of the world with high concentrations of residents who live long lives) have more in common than just healthy diets and strong social connections. Many of them are also avid gardeners.
Here are six proven ways gardening strengthens our bodies, minds and moods.
- Gardening reduces stress and boosts mood.
Growing plants and vegetables has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and increase well-being. According to AARP, a recent study showed gardening fights stress better than other activities such as reading: participants showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after gardening. And a 2017 meta-analysis of gardening went so far as to say “A regular dose of gardening can improve public health.
- It’s good for your heart.
Not only can gardening elevate your mood, it can also get your heart rate up. Gardening is a moderate physical exercise that can burn approximately 330 calories per hour. As with all physical exercise, gardening can help control blood pressure and strengthen your heart.
“There are physical benefits from doing the manual labor of gardening,” says Dr. Robert Hutchins, a UNC internal medicine physician. “It’s hard work to garden, and it provides some cardiovascular benefit.”
- You’ll get your daily dose of vitamin D.
Sunlight is a great source of vitamin D, and outdoor gardening creates an opportunity to soak up a healthy dose. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and contributes to strong bones.
- Gardening can lead to a healthier diet.
Most of the conventional vegetables you see at the supermarket were grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. When you grow your own vegetables, you know exactly what you’re getting: easy access to fresh, natural food. “It’s essentially as farm-to-table as it gets,” says Dr. Hutchins, “if you’re eating what you’re growing.”
- It can help build self-esteem and provide a sense of accomplishment.
Trying new things can be a way to increase self-confidence. Planting things and watching them grow can be a very satisfying experience. You’ll quickly see the results of your efforts. Kids can also get a sense of accomplishment from helping to plant a garden—and being able to eat what you’ve grown can be exciting for all ages.
- Gardening can create a sense of community.
Community gardens can be spaces where we get to know our neighbors or spend time with family and friends. Community gardening can be particularly beneficial for older adults who may not have as many outlets for socialization. A 2016 study in the Journal of Public Health concludes that “Allotment gardening can play a key role in promoting mental well-being and could be used as a preventive health measure.
Now that we know the health benefits of gardening, let’s take a look at some easy DIY gardening projects. Many of these can be completed in a single afternoon. And you don’t need a big backyard to start a garden. Planting and tending can occur in the smallest of spaces, as well as indoors, making the garden and its benefits accessible to just about everyone.
Hanging Garden Wall
When you don’t have a lot of space, consider planting upward instead of outward. Vertical gardens can be hung on an exterior wall, and in some cases even an interior one. There are several ways to create one. You can use landscape fabric to create a hanging canvas with pockets for various plants, or visit a garden supply store to find pouches made from recycled materials with metal grommets for mounting to a wall.
Raised Garden Beds
A raised garden bed is usually a large planter box that can be constructed according to your size needs. These work well in larger outdoor spaces, although it’s possible to build them in smaller yards as well. A raised bed supports drainage and can help protect your crops against pests. You’ll need wood as well as a drill and other basic construction tools. If building a bed from scratch seems too daunting, some companies offer kits that include everything you need along with easy-to-follow instructions.
One Pot Vegetable Garden
If you’re limited on outdoor space, consider planting a few vegetables or herbs in a single container. You can use a galvanized water trough or a ceramic pot. Plants that easily grow in smaller containers include tomatoes, chile peppers, chives and basil.
Small Space Salad Box
Similar to the one pot vegetable garden, another project that’s perfect for small outdoor spaces is a standing planter filled with salad greens or other vegetables. Just use a typical planter box and add legs to make a stand. Set it up on a front porch or beside a back door and you’ll always have quick access to fresh greens.
You can easily make a home for flowers, herbs and other plants from a log. If you have a large backyard, you may be able to find a log without leaving your property. Garden centers, lumber yards and tree-cutting services are also good places to source wood. You’ll need a garden trowel or wood chisel to hollow out the log. This eye-catching planter is also good for the planet: since it’s made of natural materials, it won’t end up in a landfill. When you’re done using it as a planter, you can repurpose it into a container for compost.
Living Roof Birdhouse
Another great option for those with limited outdoor space: turn the roof of a birdhouse into a tiny garden. You’ll need roofing paper or plastic to act as a moisture barrier. Succulents, moss and sedums are all sturdy plants that will thrive in this compact environment, and they also offer decorative appeal.