With fewer cold days and more sunlight hours, I find myself feeling spring has really arrived – time to get out and get active. One way to harness that extra burst of spring energy is to spend more time outdoors enjoying the change in season. With April being National Garden Month and April 22nd marking Earth Day, now is the perfect time to get a head-start on your gardening to honor these celebrations.
Benefits of Gardening
Few activities can match gardening when it comes to providing multiple rewards for our health and our environment.
First, it’s a great way to get the 2.5 hours of weekly activity suggested by the CDC. Planting, digging, weeding, pruning, and watering all count as exercise, and according to a publication by Harvard Medical School, gardening can burn from 120 to over 250 calories per half hour. That’s comparable to the calories burned taking a brisk walk, except when you’re doing an activity you enjoy, the time flies by more quickly.
Add to that the benefit of vitamin D production from sunlight (in moderation and with proper protection, of course), and it’s the perfect activity for those getting over the wintertime blues (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
But did you also know that gardening can reduce stress? Studies have shown that gardening after a stressful situation can significantly reduce cortisol levels and elevate mood back to pre-stress levels, even more so than reading. Less stress means better overall health and a potentially longer life, and who wouldn’t want that?
You can also literally “go green” when you garden. Not only do you beautify your surroundings, but according to NASA, plants help clean the air indoors and out. In addition, by planting edible plants, you can reduce the number of one-item trips you take to the grocery store, reducing your carbon footprint and raising your intake of nutritious, fresh, pesticide-free foods.
Everyone Can Garden
Where you live shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a green thumb. It is absolutely possible to garden regardless of any space limitations you feel you might have.
Apartment dwellers can find gardening space on balconies, and if they don’t have outdoor space, indoor gardens are also an option. Small potted herb gardens in kitchen windows are both decorative and functional, and some varieties of dwarf fruit trees can also be grown indoors near a window with lots of light.
People with more space have more options. Outdoor container gardens can be functional without taking up too much room, or at the other end of the spectrum, garden beds can be created to grow a variety of plants over a large plot.
One solution we love that would work for both types of spaces is this ultra-clever herb garden planted in a repurposed fabric shoe organizer.
What to Grow
What you grow should be a reflection of your interests. If the thought of colorful flowers in bloom brings you joy, plant flowers. If you love to cook (or eat), plant fresh ingredients like herbs and vegetables. The options are only limited by your imagination, but to help you get started, here are 10 easy plants for beginning gardeners to grow:
Zinnias. Most varieties of zinnias grow easily from seed sown in larger pots or in the ground. Plants are hardy, and they bloom summer through fall in most parts of the country.
Cosmos. Also great for most of the country, cosmos start to flower just eight weeks after seeding, and they continue until the frost. They are best planted in areas with lots of sun, and can even grow in poor soil or in hot, humid weather. They attract butterflies to the garden, and look beautiful cut and placed in a vase.
Jasmine. Many-flowered jasmine and Arabian jasmine are also easy to grow indoors and out. Plant them in areas (in the ground or in a pot) that get a lot of sun, and keep the soil moist for beautiful pink and white flowers that will perfume your garden.
Herbs. Herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, parsley, and chives aren’t too picky about where they grow. Plant them in organic potting soil in containers (12 inches deep and 12 inches wide is plenty of room), or plant them in the ground alone or around larger plants.
Lettuces. There are so many varieties of lettuce that finding one to suit your climate and tastes should be easy. Lettuces do well in the shade, so a wide container in a shady part of your balcony or yard will work well. You can also plant them in the shade of taller plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Harvest them by picking the largest leaves or by cutting all the leaves and leaving about an inch of the base in the soil.
Tomatoes. For container gardens, cherry tomatoes do better than the larger varieties. Larger tomatoes can be planted from starters or small plants which can be purchased or planted indoors from seed. Replant them in an area with lots of sun, burying them deeply up to the lowest leaves, and they will thrive.
Radishes. Spring and fall are both great seasons for radishes. Whether in a container or in the ground, they grow from seed in just a month.
Zucchini. Zucchini are a great way to maximize your harvest. Just two plants will produce plenty, and both the fruit and the flowers are edible – a double bonus!
Peas. Easy to grow, peas are a favorite for kids’ science projects. Plant seeds or seedlings early in the season in well-draining soil, and give them something to climb, like a trellis.
Peppers. You’ll want to use starters for pepper plants, as they are the easiest to grow. Plant them in a warm area, either in containers or in a bed, and make sure to pick a few early on to stimulate production.
For a truly comprehensive source for what grows best in your part of the country, you can refer to the USDA’s current plant hardiness zone map that divides areas into growing zones based on annual temperature lows. By knowing which zone you live in, you can determine which plants are ideal in your neck of the woods.
Seeds, seedlings, and gardening supplies can be found year-round. Big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, as well as major hardware retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s often have garden centers with a wide variety of products. Of course, don’t discount your local nursery in favor a discount, either. Local growers can not only help you pick out the best plants for your climate, but quite often, are more than happy to share knowledge and tips to help your garden thrive. And for beautiful containers, the vast number of retailers and online stores makes your options virtually limitless.
Composting: Feed Your Garden
Once you have your garden planted, you’ll want to make sure you provide it with proper nutrients for maximum yield. Composting is a great way to feed your garden while reducing the amount of organic waste you throw out.
In a nutshell, compost is decomposed organic material that can be used as a soil substitute or an addition to reintroduce nutrients into soil. It is created by combining equal amounts of organic wastes or “greens” (grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, etc.) and bulking agents or “browns” (dead leaves, branches , twigs, wood chips, etc.) with water and allowing the mix to breakdown and stabilize. Earthworms and other decomposers can accelerate the process, and it represents a 360 degree cycle of sustainable gardening.
Depending on your space, you can compost in the backyard or indoors. Backyard composting can be done in a bin or in a pile in a dry, shady spot. Large pieces should be chopped or shredded, and the bottom layer should be a 6-inch layer of brown materials topped with a 3-inch layer of green materials and a little soil or finished compost (available at garden stores).
The layers should be mixed lightly and topped with an additional 3 inches of brown materials and just enough water to make the pile moist. The pile should be turned with a pitchfork every week or two to aerate and moisten the pile evenly. Dryer materials should be moved to the center of the pile, and in one to four months, the compost will be ready. Bins and materials can be purchased at major hardware stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Orchard Supply fairly inexpensively, depending on size.
Indoor composting is done on a much smaller scale, and if you’re on a spring juice cleanse like us, the leftover pulp is perfect “green” material. Bins are small enough to fit on your countertop, take just 2-5 weeks, and many have charcoal filters to absorb any odors. You can purchase them from retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and World Market for under $30. Online retailers such as Amazon carry a wide variety as well.
The EPA’s composting site is also a great resource to learn which materials are compostable and which are not and for step-by-step instructions on different composting methods.
Earth-Friendly Pesticide Control
We’re not the only fans of plants. Pests, insects, and fungi attack plants, and dealing with them can be an unpleasant issue. Many common pesticides (glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, etc.) are proven to be toxic and linked to health problems such as birth defects, infertility, respiratory issues, and even cancer. They are also difficult to wash off completely, and they can contaminate soil and groundwater and run off into the ocean to be absorbed by marine life.
To be more earth and self-friendly, try these popular, natural, non-toxic options that can be made with ingredients found in your home:
Oil and water. A spray of one tablespoon canola oil mixed in a quart of water will smother soft-bodied insects like mites, aphids, and mealybugs. Spray from top to bottom, and also spray the underside of leaves.
Food-grade diatomaceous earth. The sharp, microscopic pieces are harmless to us but will kill earwigs, slugs, and other soft-bodied insects by damaging their exoskeletons. Sprinkle it around the perimeter of plants.
Apple-cider vinegar. Spraying raw apple cider vinegar on the leaves or soil of your plants will change the pH balance and prohibit or kill any mold or mildew that may be growing on your plants’ leaves or in the soil.
Milk. A spray bottle of half milk and half water sprayed on plants every three or four days (as needed) works as a fungicide.
Once you get planting, remember to always be mindful of pets in your garden. Certain parts of plants can be toxic to pets (tomatoes, chives, hydrangeas, etc.), so keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t take a nibble or avoid planting them altogether.
Lastly, remember to celebrate gardening’s greatest benefit – the sense of accomplishment you get when you see the results of your work! The aesthetic pleasure of a beautiful flower bed or the bounty of an edible harvest is something that can be shared with others and boosts our self-esteem. How many other activities can boast that?
Let’s work out our green thumbs this spring and share our results!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.