Plants, Soil, and You: How Gardening Can Boost Your Nutrition and Health

From gut health to mood to disease prevention, gardening offers us many benefits. Plus: A recipe featuring garden-grown ingredients.

For months I had been trying to build a successful batch of compost. I had scratched out a list of “don’ts” instead of anything resembling soil out of my kitchen scraps: Don’t use a compost tumbler because the bin will get too heavy. Don’t put the bin in the sun or it will get too dry. Don’t use leaves as a carbon source unless you want the compost to be matted.

Finally, I landed on a method of layering food scraps with wood chips. I added to the pile diligently until a sudden illness left me unable to tend to my small garden. It was about a month before I took a few labored steps into my backyard. I struck my trowel into the compost at last.

“What is this?” I thought to myself, sifting through the compost.

Yes, there were, indeed, worms wriggling through the wood chips. Worms, glorious worms. I might have cried.

The simple and profound joy at finding earthworms munching away at my compost was probably the greatest feeling of fulfillment from gardening I have felt in a single moment. Even with the many failures of growing vegetables and the endless list of garden tasks, gardening has brought deep personal meaning to my life. Through the process of growing food, I have found connection with my heritage and with the earth. I find these connections, like the roots of a tree, run deep. As we face rising global levels of anxiety and distress with the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the existential threats of climate change and chronic disease, gardening is the balm we need to weather the uncertainty.

From gut health to mood to disease prevention, gardening offers many benefits. As humans connect with living plants and soil organisms, we step out of the concrete and microchip world of man and into a larger ecosystem in which we play just a small part.

The moments may not always be profound. I have found holes dug by raccoons in my raised beds and ant colonies traipsing out of my avocado tree pot. But I have also come by passionfruit and peaches buried in loose soil (thanks to squirrels) and many birds and butterflies flying between native shrubs. The interactions with living things are difficult to imagine: At any one time, there are at least one billion soil bacteria teeming in one gram of soil alone.¹

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There is scientific evidence for the benefits of gardening from head to toe:

MIND/MOOD

Studies reveal benefits of gardening on mindfulness and mood. A review on nature-based therapy for a healing garden in Denmark described permaculture and psychological aspects of gardening.² Permaculture is a gardening philosophy centered around building webs of nutrients. It illustrates that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Interdependency is key. Therapy in the garden uses mindfulness and the natural world to promote “present centered awareness.” With a large amount of research backing the benefits of mindfulness², patients in the healing garden observe and interact with nature through their senses. They see themselves as part of the ecosystem and can clarify values.

Gardening is often seen as a relaxing activity. It provides moderate physical activity and harnesses the restorative power of nature. A study on the stress-relieving effects of gardening looked at mood and cortisol levels. Participants were members of a community garden or “allotment” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. They completed a stressful task using a computer and then either engaged in gardening or reading. Saliva for cortisol levels was collected. Mood was measured multiple times with a survey. After the stressful activity, cortisol increased and mood lowered. But, after engaging in a relaxing activity, the gardening group had a much greater decrease in cortisol and a higher positive mood than the reading group.³ This is one of the first studies to put numbers behind the therapeutic benefit of gardening.

A similar study of 269 allotment gardeners in the UK found that gardeners had better self-esteem, general health, and less depression and fatigue. A session of just 30 minutes could produce these benefits.

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

TASTE/CONSUMPTION

There’s nothing like tasting a garden-grown tomato for the first time. The sweetness and juiciness of the fruit overwhelms the taste buds. One can almost taste the sunshine it was grown with. Trying new foods from the garden can expand the palate for even the pickiest eaters — children.

Studies of gardening programs for schoolchildren have tested whether students ate more fruits and vegetables after completing the program. Among 14 studies that looked at this, ten studies found that students who were part of gardening programs ate more fruits and vegetables after finishing the programs.

For adults, gardening at home and at community gardens can increase intake of fruit and vegetables, too. Among residents of Denver, Colorado, 56% of community gardeners ate fruits and vegetables at least 5 times a day (the recommended amount), compared to 37% of home gardeners and 25% of non-gardeners. Those that gardened also had higher levels of social involvement. One gardener shared that:

“[The garden] nurtures me as much as I nurture it.”

Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

GUT/MICROBIOME

Just like the billions of microbes present in healthy soil, the human gut is home to a vast number of microbes. The human gut microbiome, as it is called, can change with changes to diet. Diversity in the populations of gut microbes is important for good health. Low microbial diversity is linked with inflammatory bowel syndrome, arthritis, diabetes, and obesity.

Gardening increases access to vegetables, fruits, herbs, and seeds which feed the diversity of gut microbes with fiber, phytochemicals, and some vitamins. In turn, the microbes in the large intestine form short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which support immunity and good physical and mental health. Fructans found in fiber such as fructooligosaccharides and inulin are important for making these SCFAs. Fructans are found in large amounts in garden veggies such as peas, artichokes, beans, and asparagus.

Scientists believe that the microbial communities in the human gut co-evolved with those in the soil. With a shift to urban living and modern hygiene, exposure to microbes decreased. A growing amount of research supports the “hygiene hypothesis”: Early exposure to environments with diverse microbes can prevent allergies and autoimmune disorders. By interacting more directly with soil through gardening — and by avoiding pesticides in industrial agriculture — one can potentially boost microbial diversity in the gut and improve health.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

BODY/OVERALL HEALTH

Gardening can help us eat better and feel better. Can it help us to live healthier lives overall and to prevent diseases? Considering the global rise in “lifestyle diseases” such as heart disease, stroke, depression, diabetes, and obesity, communities can turn to gardening as preventive medicine.

An analysis of 22 studies around the world that looked at the health benefits of gardening concluded that gardening boosts human health by reducing depression, anxiety, stress, and BMI. They also found that gardening improves quality of life, physical activity, and cognitive function. This was true both for people who normally garden and for those who participated in horticultural therapy who did not have much gardening experience.

In a gardening intervention for Latino youth in Los Angeles, children who attended 12 weeks of nutrition and gardening classes at a community garden ate more dietary fiber and had lower blood pressure than those who were not part of the classes. Those who were overweight reduced their BMI and had less weight gain.¹⁰ The program also included visits to a local farmers market and parent classes taught in Spanish.

Another study looked at the impact of gardening for cancer survivors in Alabama. Adult and child cancer survivors were paired with Master Gardeners and received raised beds or pots and all materials for starting a garden. They worked with their Master Gardener to design and plant the garden. Over the course of one year, 40% of the survivors ate at least one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day and 60% increased their physical activity by at least 30 minutes each week.¹¹ They described that gardening motivated them to eat a healthier diet and eat more vegetables and they planned to continue gardening.

RESOURCES FOR STARTING A GARDEN

What does it take to start a garden? I believe everyone can be a “green thumb” with enough learning and persistence. To begin learning, you can find your local agricultural extension program and Master Gardener program for classes and workshops. In California, the University of California Cooperative Extension runs the UC Master Gardener Program. You can find programs in California counties with this tool.

If you have the space for a garden, a few helpful books for beginner gardeners are Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. For those with limited outdoor spaces, consider container gardening or keeping herbs and green onions indoors next to a sunny, South-facing window. You can also find (or start) a community garden near you.

If you’re adventurous, you can try foraging for fruit trees and edible weeds in your neighborhood. (In general, it’s legal to forage anything that overhangs onto the sidewalk, which is considered public property.) Visit Falling Fruit for a map of fruit trees to forage. The CropSwap app connects residents to local backyard farmers for seasonal produce.

These and remaining photos by Brianna Egan

Recipe: Garden-Grown Mediterranean Salad

This summer, I have been involved in a neighborhood garden project. The garden grows vegetables on the parkway in a large bed. Harvests are shared with neighbors. It’s been a wonderful way to connect with neighbors and access a free and local source of nutritious veggies. Below is a recipe made with produce harvested from the garden.

First, I washed all the veggies with tap water. Then I chopped the veggies: I diced the tomatoes, peeled, and diced the cucumbers, and chopped the basil into small pieces.

I placed the veggies and chickpeas into a mixing bowl.

Next, I mixed a home-made vinaigrette by combining olive oil and apple cider vinegar as well as garlic, salt, and pepper. I poured the dressing over the veggies and mixed to coat evenly.

The salad can be served as a snack or as a side with your next Mediterranean-inspired meal!

The cucumbers add a crisp crunch while the tomatoes and basil add flavor. Chickpeas round it out with protein and the dressing ties it all together. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 3 snack-sized cucumbers
  • 1 can of chickpeas
  • Handful of basil leaves
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper

Directions:

  1. Wash and chop tomatoes, cucumber, and basil. Peel cucumber skin if needed.
  2. Place veggies into mixing bowl. Open can of chickpeas and add to mixing bowl.
  3. In a separate container whisk together olive oil and apple cider vinegar for vinaigrette. Add garlic, salt, and pepper.
  4. Pour vinaigrette over mixing bowl and mix to coat evenly. Serve salad immediately or store in refrigerator.
Neighborhood garden project in Redondo Beach, CA: Our Garden of Guadalupe

Gardens can provide so much: They can nourish our bodies, support a thriving ecosystem, and reduce our dependence on the industrial food system. The connections between gardening and your health run deep and go beyond even what we’ve covered here. Your garden can be as simple as a pot of basil on the windowsill or as complex as a permaculture food forest — there’s no one right way to garden.

With the remainder of the summer season and while we’re all spending more time at home, I hope you can get outside and garden.

Your body and the planet will thank you.

Footnotes/References

  1. Wagg C, Bender SF, Widmer F, van der Heijden MGA. Soil biodiversity and soil community composition determine ecosystem multifunctionality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014;111(14):5266–5270. doi:10.1073/pnas.1320054111 ^
  2. Corazon SS, Stigsdotter UK, Moeller MS, Rasmussen SM. Nature as therapist: Integrating permaculture with mindfulness- and acceptance-based therapy in the Danish Healing Forest Garden Nacadia. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling. 2012;14(4):335–347. doi:10.1080/13642537.2012.734471 ^
  3. Van Den Berg AE, Custers MH. Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress. Journal of Health Psychology. 2010;16(1):3–11. doi:10.1177/1359105310365577 ^
  4. Wood CJ, Pretty J, Griffin M. A case–control study of the health and well-being benefits of allotment gardening. Journal of Public Health. 2015;38(3). doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdv146 ^
  5. Savoie-Roskos MR, Wengreen H, Durward C. Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Children and Youth through Gardening-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017;117(2):240–250. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.10.014 ^
  6. Litt JS, Soobader M-J, Turbin MS, Hale JW, Buchenau M, Marshall JA. The Influence of Social Involvement, Neighborhood Aesthetics, and Community Garden Participation on Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. American Journal of Public Health. 2011;101(8):1466–1473. doi:10.2105/ajph.2010.300111 ^
  7. Marshall B. Grow Yourself Healthy: Gardening to transform your gut health all year round. London, UK: White Lion Publishing; 2002. ^
  8. Blum WE, Zechmeister-Boltenstern S, Keiblinger KM. Does Soil Contribute to the Human Gut Microbiome? Microorganisms. 2019;7(9):287. doi:10.3390/microorganisms7090287 ^
  9. Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaura Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2017;5:92–99. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007 ^
  10. Davis JN, Ventura EE, Cook LT, Gyllenhammer LE, Gatto NM. LA Sprouts: A Gardening, Nutrition, and Cooking Intervention for Latino Youth Improves Diet and Reduces Obesity. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2011;111(8):1224–1230. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.05.009 ^
  11. Blair CK, Madan-Swain A, Locher JL, et al. Harvest for health gardening intervention feasibility study in cancer survivors. Acta Oncologica. 2013;52(6):1110–1118. doi:10.3109/0284186x.2013.770165 ^

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Health equity, food justice, & sustainability geek. Graduate student at Loma Linda University. @UCSanDiego and @FoodCorps alum. Views my own.