Author: Carrie Myers
Okay, I admit it. Every year I say I’m going to start a garden, and every year (so far) I have failed to follow through. My excuse list is long—this year it was that I need to finish grad school (I think that was last year’s excuse, too). Coming from a farming family, I am especially embarrassed to admit that a green thumb I have not.
When my sons were little, we did try to plant a garden. Our soil was super sandy, so we had some topsoil and manure brought to our yard. We planted some seeds—pumpkins and watermelons—two things I was told were easy to grow.
When it came time to harvest them, we realized something crossed somewhere along the line and we ended up with what we called pump-melons…or watermelkins. But we didn’t take a fail on this one. We considered it an unintentional science experiment (we homeschooled at the time).
My VitaMom partner, Ashley, however, has mad gardening skills. She and her daughter love playing in the dirt, planting seeds or seedlings, and watching the rewards of their hard work grow and flourish until it’s time to reap their harvest.
And research shows that there are a lot of benefits to growing your own food—including kids eating more fruits and vegetables when they’ve grown the food.
This is important since research shows that about 60% of kids don’t eat enough fruit and 93% don’t eat enough vegetables.
If it’s not gardening season or you don’t (yet) have a garden, there’s another way to encourage your kiddos to dine on fruits and veggies. A Penn State study suggests that simply filling half of your kids’ plates with fruits and veggies increases the amount of produce they’ll eat.
Ready to dig in? Here are a few more research-based reasons to get your hands dirty—and make it a family affair.
Gardening Counts as Physical Activity
As much as I wish my garden would grow as easily as the beanstalks grew for Jack, that’s definitely wishful thinking. Gardening requires some work! There’s tilling the ground, hoeing, raking, planting, weeding…and of course, reaping your harvest.
This is not to scare you away from gardening, though. I’m always looking for ways to increase physical activity, and gardening makes the cut. It can help improve balance, strengthen your muscles, and improve range-of-motion in certain joints—like your hips, low back, and legs if you squat instead of stooping over to pull weeds, for example. And all that hoeing and raking can even get your heart rate up, which means you’re also strengthening your heart—not to mention your arms, shoulders, and core muscles.
As a researcher from a 2018 research article in Clinical Medicine states, “There is a gym outside many a window.”
Of course, you could also plant your veggies in individual pots, which is called container gardening (for tips on how to do this, check out the Almanac). You won’t get as much physical activity doing container gardening—unless you try to lug the soil-filled pots around—but you’ll still get all the other benefits of gardening and it’s a great way to start your gardening adventure. Container gardening is also a more feasible option if you’ve got a smaller space or no yard.
Gardening Gives You a Dose of Vitamin D
Being out in the sunshine has been shown to reduce blood pressure. It also allows your body to produce vitamin D—hence, why it’s called the sunshine vitamin.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), vitamin D is necessary for strong bones, as it helps your body better absorb calcium—which is why milk is usually fortified with vitamin D. It’s also necessary for nerves and muscles to work properly and to strengthen your immune system.
Here's the kicker, though: Many of us slather on sunscreen—especially on our kids. So, does this reduce the amount of vitamin D our bodies can make?
The jury is still out on this one and studies are mixed. Some say it does and others say it doesn’t. The research appears to be leaning in favor of sunscreen slightly reducing the amount of vitamin D that can be made from sunlight, but not totally eliminating it—although the amount of vitamin D goes down with increasing levels of SPF. Add SPF clothing and the levels are likely to be reduced more.
Some studies, like the 2010 study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, suggest that if you live in the northern latitudes (which would include the UK and the northernmost US states), spending 10-30 minutes sans sunscreen around noon time several times a week may help maintain vitamin D levels. It’s important to note that these studies were done with healthy Caucasian people and that people with darker skin make less vitamin D from sunlight. Being out in the sunlight without protection is also contraindicated when taking certain medications, so be sure to talk to your healthcare practitioner or pharmacist about any medications you’re taking and how they might cause your body to react to sun exposure.
And of course, there is always the risk of sun damage and skin cancer when exposed to too much sunlight, so you must also take this into account and find some balance between the risk of skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency.
So, should you supplement with vitamin D? You need to consider your big picture.
Do you drink milk fortified with vitamin D? Do you eat foods that naturally have vitamin D in them, like fatty fish, fortified breakfast cereals, and egg yolks? How much time do you spend outside? What level of SPF are you using? Do you take a multivitamin that contains vitamin D? Considering your big picture can help you decide on a strategy for getting this important nutrient. And when in doubt, talk to a registered dietitian, like VitaMom Ashley, to make sure you’re getting all the necessary nutrients your body needs.
Gardening Strengthens Your Immune System
Gordon Clark at the University of Vermont explains that soil contains microbes. And while some are bad, most are either benign or beneficial. Clark states that studies show that when kids play in the dirt and are exposed to these microbes, it can strengthen their immune systems and boost their resistance to asthma and allergies.
Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CN, concurs in his book Eat Dirt. Axe explains that these microbes, or soil-based organisms, help plants grow and create healthier gut microbiomes in humans. And according to experts like Axe and researchers at Harvard, having a healthy microbiome offers an abundance of benefits, including strengthening your immune system, better digestion, and even protection from chronic disease.
Clark also points out that certain microbes may even act as anti-depressants by activating groups of neurons responsible for producing serotonin.
While this doesn’t mean that you need to actually take a bite of your kids’ mud pies, it does mean that you probably don’t need to freak out when you realize they’ve eaten some dirt (assuming there hasn’t been some poisonous chemical sprayed onto the ground). If you’re eating organic, Axe suggests just rinsing the produce off instead of scrubbing it. This will leave some of the microbes on the produce.
Gardening provides many benefits, both physically and mentally. And while you might have to deal with a few bugs and worms, the pros of gardening far outweigh the cons.
I haven’t seen research that suggests that a family that plays in the dirt together stays together, but it is an activity that the whole family can participate in. And the togetherness doesn’t have to stop at gardening. Continue the adventure by cooking and eating together, too!