It’s not just for sustenance, but too for exercise, drinking in life and beauty, and maintaining humility.
Why garden? I mean, other than the obvious reason: to put food on the table without going to the store. But gardening, even on a limited basis, provides many other benefits I, for one, can’t live without. Here are five:
#1: Gardening is Good Exercise. A woman in my yoga class calls gardening her summer yoga program. I understand why, but you don’t have to take our word for it. A 2008 study at the University of Kansas showed that gardeners between the ages of 63 and 86 could meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American College of Sports Medicine physical activity recommendations through their daily gardening activities. True, gardening is a seasonal activity. But I found a six-week “Spring Training Garden Fitness Plan” designed to get us into shape before the gardening season begins, at: gardenfitness.com/garden_fitness_plan.htm. Check it out!
#2: Gardening Exposes Us to the Living World. In an age when nearly all of us spend way too much time staring at screens, gardening brings us face to face with actual creatures and extraordinary events. In August 2010, I encountered a grisly scene: a dragonfly making a meal of a tiger swallowtail butterfly. In May 2011, I was mesmerized by the sight of hundreds of newborn praying mantises oozing out of a mantis eggcase. No doubt I could have found video footage of these amazing events on YouTube or a TV nature program. But why settle for second best?
#3: Gardening Wakes Us Up. A gardener who doesn’t pay attention to what is happening in his bailiwick is doomed. You’ve heard of nipping things in the bud. Well, that’s what you have to do in a garden. No wonder horticulture is the source of that cliché. You notice weeds; you notice disease; you notice something’s been nibbling on the beans, or that the broccoli and kale leaves are full of holes. Walking around the garden at first light, you find yourself making a mental list of things that need attending to. It’s not just coffee in the mug but the appearance of the first cucumber beetle or the clover invading the asparagus bed that jolts a gardener awake.
#4: Gardening Connects Us to Beauty, Mystery and Wonder. I very much doubt that I am the only gardener who routinely finds herself swept away by the sheer beauty of what’s out there in the garden. Dazzled! Not just the Echinacea in bloom but the bright yellow crab spider lying in wait for some colorblind insect prey to happen along. Come to think of it, why is the spider on the Echinacea yellow instead of purple? Don’t they change color to camouflage themselves? Why hasn’t this one? You wonder – and make a note to look it up. Washing a colander full of chard you’ve harvested for supper, you wonder whether there is anything more beautiful than those purple ribs against the green of the leaves. Not at the moment there isn’t. Nice, isn’t it, to be so easily pleased?
#5: Gardening Teaches Collaboration, Creativity, Humility – and Hope. You can’t make a tomato plant produce tomatoes, but you can help it along by providing the sunlight, water and nutrients it requires, supporting it and removing its suckers. Still, a critter may chomp on its ripening fruits. Early or late blight may wreak havoc. All that work, and for nothing! Why even try? For one thing, none of these problems may crop up, in which case you’ll be eating well – and feeling triumphant. For another, you may come up with a way to avert disaster. And if your whole crop fails, well, you’ve learned a valuable lesson in humility. You’re not in charge, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s a farmer’s market somewhere, where you can get tomatoes (or beans or corn or squash – whatever failed) and advice. Farmers love to talk about how they raised those gorgeous Mortage Lifters and Mr. Stripeys and Cherokee Purples. Good to know, because there’s always next year.