Becky Weeks - Jan 08, 2021
The Many Benefits of Gardening
Interest in home gardening is perhaps at its highest level since the Victory Garden era of World War II. In those times, Victory Gardens were encouraged by the government to offset labor, manufacturing, and logistical shortfalls and instead shift those precious resources towards the war effort. Families of that era, often separated from loved ones overseas, saw gardening as an act of patriotism and a way to make their own contribution to the war effort.
The recent pandemic and subsequent economic and societal struggles have ushered in a whole new generation of gardeners, each with their own motivations for growing their own food. For many, the unsettling sight of empty grocery shelves unearthed some serious questions about our dependence of modern food production and transportation systems. For others, increased freedom brought on by work-from-home opportunities created a desire to get outdoors, interact with nature, and spend more time with family. Each of us has our motivations for gardening, but no matter our individual circumstances, there are benefits to be gained by just about anyone with a curiosity about gardening and a willingness to give it a try.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average family of 4 spends between $10,680 and $12,744 annually on groceries and eating out (USDA, 2019). It is understandable then, that many families are looking for ways to trim their grocery budget—our own gardening journey began this way. If you have access to land, supplementing even a small portion of your food supply with homegrown fruit and vegetables can save you hundreds of dollars annually. These savings are multiplied if you traditionally buy organic produce at the grocery store. While organic produce can be double the price of conventional equivalents, growing food organically on the home gardening scale requires little, if any, added effort. For those looking to maximize their garden’s output (and therefore their savings) excess garden produce can be frozen or canned for later consumption. In fact, canning is a great way to conserve not only financial, but also natural resources because the materials used in home canning are partially reusable, or completely reusable if you are using Tattler canning lids.
Food Security and Preparedness
Along with the COVID-19 pandemic came an unfamiliar sight for most Americans—empty store shelves. For the first time in decades, many were left wondering how they would feed their families should an even more serious event occur. Desperate for something tangible to ensure their food security, many turned to gardening. Across the entire seed and nursery industry, companies experienced unprecedented order volume, causing some companies to suffer months-long delays in order processing and forcing others to temporarily close their doors. Some gardeners were left wondering if they would have anything to plant come spring. Others were left with packets of seeds and no experience to guide them on how to grow a garden. Having the resources and the knowledge to provide for your family’s most basic need--that is, food-- through gardening, can give one incredible peace-of-mind, especially during turbulent times. Going one step further and learning to save your own seeds can almost assure that your family will have at least something to eat should hard times come your way.
Freshness, Cleanliness and Quality
Without a doubt, the produce you harvest from your own garden will be fresher than anything you can purchase at the grocery store. Additionally, there is a general consensus that the flavor and texture of a grocery store tomato cannot touch that of a homegrown one. However, with growing concerns these days about the ever-increasing number of pesticides that are sprayed on produce, gardeners have discovered one more reason to grow their own food—controlling what’s in it. A 2018 study by the USDA reported that nearly 70% of the produce sold in the United States contains pesticide residue, even after washing. For example, their analysis of 707 different samples of kale from various domestic and imported sources revealed that 94% of the samples contained the residue of at least one pesticide and 89% contained the residues of two or more. Alarmingly, 10% of the samples tested contained the residue of 10 or more different pesticides, with as many as 17 unique pesticides per sample (USDA, 2018). Regardless of what cultural methods you choose for your garden, the point is that you are the ultimate decision-maker in terms of what is in, or on your family’s food.
It's organic so it's better for me, right?
Although undoubtedly cleaner in terms of pesticides and chemical treatments, it is worth noting that the organic produce you purchase from the grocery store may not necessarily be more nutritious than its conventionally grown equivalents. The organic label carries with it only a guarantee of what is not in a product, but not necessarily what is. Getting to know local farmers in your area--and the cultural practices that they use--is one way of guaranteeing that the produce you consume is fresh, clean and nutrient-dense. The other way is to grow it yourself and to carefully control the macro and micronutrients available to your plants.
Exercise, therapy, and personal satisfaction
Move it or lose it—that’s what my mother used to say. I don’t think she was talking about gardening, but nevertheless the principle still holds. Gardening will have you moving in all sorts of ways that you are not used to—you’ll be bending, kneeling, and at times even crawling. The morning after, you may find yourself aching in muscles you never knew existed. But by the end of the season, you’ll feel stronger and healthier than when you started. Besides the obvious health benefits of eating your garden vegetables, many rewards are offered by the process of growing them. Breathing in fresh air, soaking up sunshine, walking, squatting, stretching across beds, even sweating are all great health-promoting activities. What’s more, gardening affords us lots of quiet time to reflect on events in our lives and process any troubling thoughts or emotions we may have. When my mother passed away unexpectedly one June in the height of gardening season, I could have irrigated the garden with my tears. I spent weeks outside on my knees reminiscing, crying and praying, but by the end of the summer I emerged with a peaceful spirit. Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief, but for me gardening provided the exact environment I needed for healing.
For many, the garden is the ultimate canvas for artistic expression. There are endless ways to play around with color, texture, and space in the garden. In fact, plants are unique in the way that they can simultaneously tickle all the senses: sight, smell, sound (think of the gentle rustling of leaves), touch and of course, taste. Furthermore, the garden invites opportunity to creatively blend the living—plants, birds, butterflies and other insects—with the inanimate. From trellises, to sculptures, to uniquely painted garden fences—one is limited only by their own imagination. There are countless ways that ordinary materials can be recycled and re-used in new, interesting ways to create a colorful and inviting landscape that expresses one’s own unique tastes and creativity.
Gardening as a family activity
With the pace of life these days, many families are looking for ways to slow down and actively engage with each other. Besides gardening, few activities offer as many opportunities to interact, play and learn together. Children are naturally curious about growing things and little ones especially are eager to help out in the garden. They love holding the seeds in their hands, dropping them in the soil and covering them. They express a contagious sort of excitement when they see the first seedlings emerge and by the time the first peppers or tomatoes appear, you’ll have difficulty keeping their little hands off them. I’m often surprised at how much inspecting, poking, and pulling a pepper can take. Although it requires a little patience, letting your children help in the garden has another benefit—they’re more likely to eat something if they’ve had a part in growing it. We’ve watched with amazement as our children have gobbled down raw peppers, tomatoes, cooked spinach, even beets—things we would never have eaten as children—all because they helped grow them. Above anything else, gardening together strengthens family bonds. The experience of working together to accomplish a common goal carries with it rewards that extend far beyond the growing season, and the memories you create with your loved ones will last a lifetime.
Being shut inside our homes for the better part of a year has limited the practice of a virtue that was already in neglect—neighborliness. Planting a garden is a contagious, community-strengthening activity that spreads cheer far beyond the garden fence. When you plant a garden, you may soon find small garden plots, raised beds, and patio gardens cropping up all over the neighborhood. Spending more time outdoors, you will eventually find yourself bumping into neighbors more often and since they’re now gardening too, you’ll have something to talk about. Before long, you begin to share experiences, swap tips, eventually even seeds and plants. By mid-summer, the whole neighborhood is awash in the color of fresh flowers and garden plants, the sound of laughter permeates the air and boxes shared produce adorn doorsteps. What a vision!
The Sidewalk Garden
One spring, after outgrowing our main garden plot we decided to till up a narrow plot on the north side of our house. The plot was bordered by a well-traveled sidewalk and I’m ashamed now to admit that my initial concern was that some passerby may be tempted to reach over the garden fence and pick one of my precious tomatoes. Nevertheless, we proceeded with the plan and filled the new garden with tomatoes, peppers and some greens in the shadier spots. In the cooler hours of the evening, as the sun began slip behind the horizon, I’d put on my garden shoes and head out to tend the garden. Soon after, neighbors would pass by, out on their evening walks and I’d find myself leaning against the garden fence, engaged in conversation. I would smile as children, riding by on their bicycles, stopped to inspect a developing tomatillo, remarking “What on earth is that thing!” Years later, when we moved out to the country and I finally got the large, sunny garden of my dreams, I found it almost lonesome. I missed the liveliness of my old neighborhood garden. Oh and by the way, I never did lose a single tomato, although I did give more than a few away.
Bottom Line: Why we garden
Gardening offers countless benefits to our quality of life, health, and well-being. In exchange for investing a bit of our time and effort, we reap benefits that extend far beyond the money savings. We get to spend more time outdoors, engaging with our family, neighbors, and nature. Our bodies get much needed exercise and our minds get time to rest and recover from our busy lives. Perhaps best of all, at the end of the day we get to gather up the fruits of our labor and feast in all of their vibrant colors and flavors, the depth and diversity of which cannot easily be purchased. Finally, at night we get to rest peacefully, our minds and bodies content with the satisfaction of knowing that we worked hard to produce nutritious food for ourselves and our families.
Becky Weeks, Ph.D.
Geneticist, Gardener, Founder of Thresh Seed Co.
Becky is a geneticist with a passion for gardening. Prior to starting Thresh Seed Co., she spent fifteen years researching plant genetics and development, later applying those principles to aid in the breeding of commercial corn and soybean varieties. She lives on a farm in Iowa with her husband and two children, where she enjoys growing just about anything and experimenting with the breeding of new vegetable varieties.