Walk into your local gardening center and ask the average shopper what they’re hoping to get out of their garden, and you’re likely to hear the usuals:
“I just want to get enough tomatoes so I don’t have to rely on the cardboard-flavored store varieties.”
“I’m hoping to put up at least enough food for the winter.”
“I like having access to fresh flowers and produce whenever I want it.”
Ask the non-gardening guy on the street what the point of gardening is and you’re likely to get a variety of answers, but it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will strike on the most important reason for gardening.
Sure, it’s a great way to enjoy fresh food.
Sure, it can save money.
Yes, it’s great exercise.
Still, there are plenty of other ways, in our society, to afford oneself of good, inexpensive, fresh food without gardening. There are multitudes of free exercise opportunities you can enjoy without getting your hands dirty.
There’s one thing about gardening that is unique, though.
It’s something that can’t be accomplished on a treadmill, and you won’t get to enjoy it by finding a great sale on produce at the farmer’s market.
That singular advantage to gardening is found, of all places, in the dirt that so many people try so hard to avoid.
So, what does the dirt provide that you can’t get from any other source?
Believe it or not, the answer is happiness.
How Gardening Makes You Happy
For lifelong gardeners, it’s no front page news that gardening produces happiness. Any experienced gardener is well aware that something wonderful happens the moment you squeeze that first loamy clump of fertile brown earth after the winter thaw.
Some attribute this gardening glee to the exhilaration that comes with the first warm rays of sunshine after the cabin fever of wintertime.
Others think it comes from the abundant scents of spring.
Still others figure it’s just a byproduct of exercise, that it’s something you’d experience whether you were planting curly endive or curling dumbbells. As addictive as weight training can be, it can’t hold a candle to the good feelings produced by gardening.
After years of speculation, scientists have recently devoted research hours to the study of why gardening is so conducive to happiness. Their findings were astonishing, even if they aren’t too incredible for gardeners who’ve experienced them firsthand.
Soil Isn’t a Dirty Word
In his May 2007 Neuroscience published study, “Identification of an Immune-Responsive Mesolimbocortical Serotonergic System: Potential Role in Regulation of Emotional Behavior,” scientist Christopher A. Lowry demonstrated the ability of a benign soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, to generate seratonin and dopamine, both chemicals responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness. When this bacteria enters the system, the immune system is optimized and the happiness juice is flowing.
In a culture where soil is viewed with distaste, these findings speak volumes. Could it be that the modern high occurrence of asthma, allergies, and other ills could be linked to the modern dread of dirt?
What if there’s more to the health of gardening than what meets the eye?
According to Lowry’s study, there is. These tiny bacteria are responsible for mood elevations that don’t just make you happier; they also make you healthier.
By working in the dirt – whether by tilling, hoeing, planting, or merely harvesting – you can avail yourself of the many benefits that lie buried in the dirt at microscopic levels. Your immunity rises, your mood is lifted, and your overall well-being is strengthened – all because of dirt.
Other Reasons Gardening Produces Health and Happiness
As you might expect, the usual reasons for planting are garden are also major contributors to happiness.
These more obvious reasons have drawn gardeners to play in the dirt for millennia, and they’re all part of the creative design for life that’s been so good ever since the first garden. Here they are:
Sunshine and Vitamin D
Although modern cancer prevention efforts have warned people of the risks of sunlight, some feel that their caution has led many to err. According to a U.S. News and World Report interview with Australian National University epidemiologist Robyn Lucas, more people die from lack of sunlight than from overexposure to it.
As scientists are continually increasing their understanding of how sunlight affects the human body, they are learning to connect the links between happiness and sunlight in a way that advises individuals how best to use the sunlight to stay healthy.
The field of chronobiology studies how circadian rhythms affect the human body. Circadian rhythms, those patterns of light/dark and wake/sleep that have defined the daily patterns for thousands of years, have recently been shown to impact both memory and cancer susceptibility.
Women who enjoy normal hours with plenty of sunlight have markedly lower incidences of breast cancer, and that’s just one example of the myriad diseases that sunlight can prevent.
One of the reasons sunlight is so beneficial is that is simply makes you happy. As scientists study circadian biology, they have discovered the impact of two important brain chemicals: seratonin and melatonin.
Seratonin, the wakefulness chemical, automatically triggers good mood feelings and a sense of well-being. Sunlight triggers the release of seratonin, just as the absence of sunlight triggers melatonin, the chemical that puts you to sleep and gives your body the rest it desperately needs.
Just as your garden will flourish relative to the amount of sunlight it receives, your body is the same. By spending time with your sun-loving seedlings, you can flourish right alongside your plants.
Fresh, Unpolluted Air
There’s nothing like the smell of clean, rain-purified air as you stroll through your garden after mowing the lawn. It’s truly therapeutic, particularly if you’re forced to spend time regularly in closed quarters where the air is tinged with mold or tobacco smoke.
The Exercise Factor
Better than the most well-stocked gym, your garden provides practical exercise opportunities that will seem easier and get much more accomplished than the best indoor regimen ever could. Studies have shown that outdoor exercise triggers less of the stress hormone, cortisol, than indoor exercise does. That’s why working outside often seems easier and more rewarding than working out indoors, even when the actual work is more strenuous outside.
In your garden, you get the added benefit of seeing visible results from all your labor that are auxiliary to your own bodybuilding.
No matter how much you like checking your muscles in the mirror, it’s every bit as rewarding to watch those plants grow a little more every day.
The Anticipation of the Harvest
Speaking of watching plants grow, there’s plenty of happiness to be found just waiting for the first ripe tomato or racing your neighbor to see whose watermelon will grow the largest.
Front Row Seating at the Miracle of Life
By gardening, you get to witness firsthand how the miracle of life happens. If you have the pleasure of gardening with children, this enjoyment is compounded many-fold.
There’s something awe-inspiring and intensely reassuring about observing the natural, unchanging rhythm of nature. Ancient lore passed down from American Indians still holds true today, and the satisfaction of keeping in step with such age-old traditions is part of what makes gardening so rewarding.
The age-old study of phenology, or the correct times for planting certain crops by observing other plant and animal behaviors, is a great example of this rhythm. Old sayings like, “Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear” have guided gardeners for ages. Here are a few other examples of these wise adages:
• When the yellow forsythia and crocus are blooming it’s the time to prune roses and fertilize the lawn
• Transplant peppers outside when the bearded iris is in bloom
• Plant your peas when the daffodils bloom
• When the elm leaves are the size of a penny, plant your kidney beans
• When peach trees are in full bloom, plant your hardy vegetable crops
• When the blossoms of the apple tree begin to fall, plant corn seeds
• When the flowering dogwood is in bloom, it’s safe to plant tomatoes, early corn and peppers
• Plant tomatoes and peppers when daylilies start to bloom
Since beautiful things naturally make us happy, plucking that perfect rose and inspecting its intricacy is an exhilarating experience.
“Stopping to smell the roses” isn’t a luxury; it’s a responsibility of anyone who expects to contribute their own measure of beauty to this world.
Edible Results That Replenish Every Year
In a world where economic downturns and recessions run the media, the fact that gardens are designed to self-replicate – with careful attention from you – inspires a sense of calmness in a chaotic world.
Yes, winter will come, and with it, the barrenness of dead things.
Still, spring will return. Seeds that were brown and lifeless will rot away, yet in their place, new life will emerge. It’s an allegory about all of life; it’s an allegory that the gardener is able to understand.
There’s no occupation that goes further back than gardening.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, men and women have been delighted with the miracle of creation that unfolds as each rotting seed transforms into a spectacular new plant capable of reproducing itself into oblivion given the right conditions.
Although an entire industry of pharmaceutically-derived happiness is being peddled with ever-increasing frequency, health and happiness are free for the asking, waiting for you buried in the dirt – right where they’ve been since the dawn of time.