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Gardening has health benefits

May 2, 2012

As I walked around our backyard, I noticed that our rose bushes and various perennial plants are becoming green and lush. The tulip and daffodil bulbs have sprouted, dotting our landscape with flowers in shades of red and yellow. After our mild winter, I am mapping out our container gardens and flower beds.

Yes, I like growing things. After all, “Garden” is my middle name. I couldn’t resist saying that.

I can’t wait to get my hands dirty and test out the skills I learned in the Master Gardener classes last year. If you never have considered participating in this Extension Service program available in most states, if not all, think about it.

Many people save gardening for their retirement years. Actually, gardening can have positive health benefits throughout life. Some researchers have found that when you live near a garden or participate in gardening as a child, you are more likely to show an interest in gardening as you grow older.

However, if childhood gardening wasn’t part of your life, don’t be deterred. Be aware of the health benefits and the satisfaction that comes with gardening. Gardening can increase our physical activity, improve our fruit and vegetable consumption, and promote mental health.

Some researchers have linked a decreased risk for diabetes and osteoporosis to the physical activity accumulated during gardening and other yard work. Physical activities, as well as balanced nutrition, are keys to managing diabetes. As we walk and lift, we put weight on our bones, which strengthens them and helps prevent osteoporosis.

People who grow vegetables are more likely to eat them. According to a Michigan State University survey of 766 adults, participating in a community garden resulted in eating more fruits and vegetables. In fact, they were 3.5 times as likely to eat fruits and vegetables five times per day.

Other studies have shown that gardening promotes bonding with your family and fosters life skills, including responsibility. If you have trouble sleeping or are coping with stressful life situations, gardening may help. Some researchers have found that gardening has a calming effect.

If you are inspired to garden but do not have a lot of space for gardening, consider planting in containers. Container gardens can be grown on a patio, step or even in a window box. Try a salsa garden with tomatoes and peppers or try growing herbs in a window box. Tending your minigarden will not take a lot of time but could provide you with quite a bit of food.

Here are some tips for planting in containers:
Be sure your container has drainage holes so extra water doesn’t pool at the bottom and damage the roots. If you want to grow tomatoes, peppers or eggplant, gardening experts usually recommend 5-gallon containers. Smaller pots work well for green onions, lettuce and herbs.

Add potting mix, not plain soil from your yard. Your soil needs to drain well.

Choose seeds or plants. You can start your own seedlings in egg cartons or even an old cake pan. Fill the container with potting soil, add seeds and cover with about a half-inch of soil. Cover with a clear plastic bag, place in a warm, sunny area and water regularly. When the seedlings have four or more leaves, they are ready to transfer into the final pot.
Find a sunny spot for your container. If your plants aren’t doing well in the spot you chose, move the container to a better place.

Water often and fertilize according to the directions on the container. Container gardens need to be watered more than regular gardens, ideally at least once every morning.

Add enough water on top of the soil so it begins to leak out the bottom.
Be sure to pull weeds regularly. Weeds compete for space, water, nutrients and sunlight.

For more information about growing plants and using your fresh produce and preserving it, see the NDSU Extension Service “Garden to Table” materials available at http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/ndsuag/food-nutrition/from-garden-to-table.

Here’s a colorful one-skillet recipe that features fresh peppers and onions.

Fiesta Chicken and Vegetables
2 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 pound total)
1 Tbsp. canola oil
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans
1 cup corn (canned or frozen)
3/4 c. bell pepper, diced (red, green, yellow)
1/2 c. onion, diced
1 c. salsa
Combine the chili powder and pepper; rub over both sides of the chicken. In a large nonstick skillet, cook chicken in oil over medium heat for five to six minutes on each side or until meat thermometer reaches a temperature of 165 degrees. Remove and keep warm. Add the beans, corn, bell peppers, onion and salsa to skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for two to three minutes or until heated thoroughly. Transfer to serving dish and place chicken on top of the vegetable mixture.
Makes four servings. Each serving has 320 calories, 7 grams (g) of fat, 33 g of protein, 30 g of carbohydrate, 8 g of fiber and 370 milligrams of sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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