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Garden for health, happiness

The outdoors is my happy place—and my modest yard and garden are among my happiest places of all. During the growing season, my husband and I spend hours outside planning, planting, weeding, and talking together. We prune trees, water raised beds, add plants that attract birds, and harvest vegetables and fruits as they ripen. As the weather warms, we plan backyard pizza nights with family and friends and enjoy our morning coffee among the blooms.

Gardening is so valuable for physical and mental health. I know because I experience the benefits firsthand! I also see the benefits from a physician’s perspective. I’ve been caring for patients for 17 years, most recently at Vancouver Clinic. Gardening supports the essential components of long-term health: good nutrition, regular exercise, stress relief, and social connection. With gardening season in full swing in the Northwest, it’s a great time to explore this activity! Below are some ideas for getting started:

Set realistic goals

Begin by letting go of the idea that you need a big space to enjoy the benefits of gardening. My own yard is a narrow lot typical of Northeast Portland. Yet my family is still able to grow a variety of perennial shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. A garden doesn’t need to take up a whole yard—in fact, it’s better to start small. A few planters on a patio can be delightful. A single pot can hold a basil plant, or a raised bed can be home to mouth-watering tomatoes, kale, and snap peas. Fruit tree branches can be trained to grow horizontally against a fence, taking up less space.

I also invite you to lower your expectations around weeds. Gardening is about growing plants you like to look at or eat. It’s not about creating a perfectly manicured environment. Weeding does not need to be a source of stress. The rhythmic activity of pulling weeds from the loose, damp soil of spring can be relaxing and gratifying. Choosing native plants that thrive in local conditions and outperform weeds can also make maintenance easier.

Make adjustments for personal health

Many individuals with health limitations find that gardening helps them feel better. Growing whole foods encourages people to eat fruits and vegetables and make nutritious food choices. Creating an enjoyable reason to be active makes it simple to incorporate exercise into daily life. Fresh air and time spent outside lift the spirit. It’s hard to find a chronic condition where a healthy diet and regular exercise don’t help.

That said, everyone has different abilities and needs different accommodations. Pruning trees while perched on a ladder isn’t for those who get dizzy or have trouble balancing. Lawn mowing can be strenuous and is better left to a neighborhood teen. Preparing planting beds may take some help, but maintaining them could be feasible. It’s important to choose gardening activities that feel good in your body.

Find the right tools

Using proper equipment helps make gardening comfortable and accessible. Kneeling pads are great for ground-level tasks. Hand shovels and shears with large grips tend to be easier for arthritic hands. Weed pullers designed for standing offer relief from back pain.

For people with mobility issues, raised beds with generous pathways between them enable wheelchair and scooter access. Small containers, placed on a table or similar surface, are a great solution for those who need to remain upright. Sometimes the best tool is actually a friend or family member. Many older adults enjoy getting their children and grandchildren involved in growing plants. Young people can take on strenuous tasks, such as hauling dirt and digging holes.

Open your yard

One of the best parts of gardening is sharing your space with others. I recommend inviting friends over to enjoy the scenery and sample the produce. It’s a lovely way to socialize! Gardening can also spark conversations and connections with neighbors. Try asking what types of plants others have had success with. Plants that grow well in one yard typically do well a few doors down. Consider splitting and sharing perennials or rehoming summer’s abundance of tomatoes. Spending time with others and building a supportive community are part of a healthy lifestyle.

Garden responsibly

Gardening is generally a safe activity; however, there are a few precautions everyone can take:

  • Go outside early or late in the day to avoid the hot sun. Wear sunscreen and a large-brimmed hat, and seek out shady areas to work in.
  • Protect the skin from splinters and injuries with gardening gloves. This is particularly important for individuals who are immune compromised and prone to infections.
  • If you have allergies, take allergy medications before you begin gardening. You can wear a mask to limit pollen exposure and shower after you come indoors to remove pollen.
  • Listen to your body. Movement is often the best medicine because sitting tends to stiffen joints. However, that’s not true for everyone. Respect your body’s limitations by hydrating, taking breaks, and stopping when you need to.

If you have questions about how to safely start a new activity, such as gardening, be sure to talk to your physician.

Dr. Jennifer Kearsley is an internist at Vancouver Clinic. She approaches patients with kindness, creating a comfortable environment where they can ask questions and share concerns. She is an avid hiker, birder, camper, and gardener.