Find Health in Your Backyard Garden

By Kelli M. Donley, MPH

Countless research has shown a regular diet of fruit and vegetables is ideal; however, a recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health shows gardeners also report a cornucopia of health benefits from being outside, connected to the earth. The research showed gardeners had more extensive community engagement, stronger social relationships, and were more supportive of positive health-related behaviors and overall health than their non-gardening counterparts.

Getting your hands dirty in the garden may not just feed your stomach, but may also be good for your heart. Liz Lonetti, master gardener and executive director of the Valley Permaculture Alliance in Phoenix says a connection to gardening, food and health should be common sense.

“Our bodies are literally made out of the food we put in our mouths,” she says. “The more vibrant, healthy and clean my food is, the more my body and mind reflects those qualities. This fact became even clearer during my pregnancy last year. The thought of my baby being made out of the food I ate definitely made me look twice at anything that came pre- bagged, canned or boxed! What I don’t grow myself, I usually purchase organic and those are all new habits.”

As the leader of the Valley Permaculture Alliance – a nonprofit focused on encouraging Phoenicians to garden and live more sustainable lives – Lonetti has become a well-known garden guru. “I don’t think of gardening and sustainable living as influencing my life, rather it is my life, it’s who I am,” she says. “besides the obvious benefits of fresh healthy food and outdoor exercise, the benefit I find the best was probably the least anticipated – that of exercising my mind. I love researching, tinkering and experimenting with which plants will grow and do best in which micro climates in my yard.”

Lonetti says she’s seen the health benefits of gardening among friends and fellow VPA members too. “My neighbor’s sister lost her husband of 50 years and found great relief in a friend’s meditation garden walking a labyrinth path,” she says. “She claimed it saved her life and I don’t doubt it. Geoff Lawton, one of the world’s top permaculture designers, famously said, ‘All the world’s problems can be solved in a Garden.’ I believe that includes much of the suffering we experience in life.”

For those who don’t have the space, time or energy to garden – Lonetti says connecting with local farmers is another way to support sustainable living, and eat seasonally.

“Don’t worry about gardening if you are in circumstances that inhibit playing in the soil – do what you can,” she says. “Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, and support your local farmers while enjoying the freshest seasonal produce available. Beyond that, start with what inspires you and start small. You can’t go wrong with composting, even if you don’t have a garden to put the compost on, plants any- where would be happy to take some. Additionally, you could plant a few herbs in a pot and see what happens. Above all, remain curious, experiment and keep an open mind.”

Sustainable has been a buzz- word for several years. Lonetti says so much can be marketed as “green” or “sustain- able,” but the average person may not know how to apply these concepts in their own home. Doing so, she says, creates a significantly healthier environment. “Sustainable living begins with assessing the flow of energy and resources in your life,” she says. “For me, it was a matter of really analyzing where the consumables I purchase come from, how I will use them, and what happens when I’m done with the product. This made me realize how out of balance my ideals were from my daily practice. I started looking to my friends and neighbors for ‘stuff’ that I would ordinarily have just gone out and purchased. For instance, my neighbor and I pooled our resources and purchased a pressure can-er to have canning parties to put up the produce we grow. I find I’m willing to spend more of my money and time on the food that I feed my family and friends and much less on everything else.”

For those interested in getting their hands dirty with a garden, but don’t know where to start, Lonetti says the VPA has many resources. “It’s a good way to connect with a group of like minded people making those small changes towards sustainability,” she says. “There is a wealth of information on our website about many topics, including gardening in the desert, composting, keeping urban chickens and more.

Sitting outside in the garden to meditate, feeling your heart- beat rise and the sweat bead on your brow after an exhilarating weeding session, or harvesting a crop of juicy, homegrown tomatoes can bring peace of mind and pain relief. Gardening also provides a healthy reminder of seasonal eating.

With fall temperatures, there has never been a better time to get outside and get involved.


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