You always knew this day would come, you just didn’t think it would sneak up on you so fast. It seems like just yesterday you were doing keg stands and dancing on bar counters. Now your guilty pleasure is the few milligrams of melatonin in your 9p.m. mug of bedtime tea. You find yourself getting excited about things like a new pair of socks or a vacuum cleaner going on sale. You’ve been Googling ear-hair trimmers and overnight eye creams, and you love the soothing voice of David Attenborough.
But that’s not the worst of it: you’ve been having this yearning you’re ashamed to talk about out loud. You’re afraid to tell your friends and loved ones, since you’d rather they associate you with single malts and mohawks. The truth is you’ve been dreaming of wide-brimmed hats, overalls, and a gleaming pair of pruning shears. You’re thinking of starting a garden — becoming one of those old people that cares about slow-growing plants. The good news is: gardening actually has a lot of benefits that could keep you feeling younger.
The mental health benefits of gardening are almost too numerous to list. Gardening can reduce anxiety and stress and lower the risk of depression. It can also help with focus and concentration, and even improve functioning in people with ADHD. Gardening can improve memory and cognition, significantly lower the risk of dementia, and so much more.
Spending time in the garden boosts your vitamin D levels, which can decrease anxiety, depression, and even lower suicide risk. Studies show that being around plants — even indoor plants — can improve mood and reduce stress. The physical exercise inherent in spending time in the garden releases serotonin and endorphins that can boost your mood, too.
Gardening is amazing exercise. In fact, it actually works all the major muscle groups. All those squatting, lifting, and digging motions strengthen and tone your legs, arms and back. Bending and reaching can help improve your flexibility. Weight-bearing activities, like lifting plants, tools, and bags of soil, can build muscle. Not to mention, the activity keeps your heart rate up, so gardening is literally doing cardio.
Gardening even has physical health benefits that go above and beyond other forms of exercise. Research has found that women over 50 who garden weekly have higher bone density than women who jog, swim, walk, or do aerobics. Gardening can, in fact, be so strenuous that the AARP and other sources recommend warming up first. Try some simple stretches or go for a walk to loosen up and get your blood flowing before you start.
One amazing advantage to gardening is getting to eat what you grow. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs are often tasty and usually packed with natural goodness. But produce loses many of its nutrients over the long journey from farm to store and could contain toxic pesticides. Foods you grow at home have higher levels of vitamins and minerals. Plus, you control what chemicals (if any) you use in the growing process.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac keeps a great list of some of the healthiest fruits and vegetables you can grow in your garden. It’s possible to select and grow certain higher-nutrient varieties of particular fruits and vegetables. The Almanac also notes that monitoring and maintaining your soil quality will get the most nutrients out of garden produce. But you don’t need to get everything perfect; simply eating more fruits and vegetables is enough all on its own.
When you think of gardening, you may think of it as a solitary hobby you only do at home. But there are plenty of options for turning gardening into a social activity. You can join — or even start — a community garden or even a rooftop garden if you live in a city. Or you could volunteer at a nursing home or other local organization that has a garden that needs tending. If these aren’t options, simply gardening in your front yard could help you befriend passing neighbors as you work.
Gardening with and around others has lots of benefits for your health and happiness. You can make new friends, and avoid the mental health risks that come from social isolation. If you’re fit and adventurous, you could try WOOFing — a practice where you travel the world working on different farms. You never know: you could make lifelong friends or even meet the love of your life among the eggplants and zucchinis.
Gardening doesn’t have to be a stodgy old person’s activity or something that makes you feel out-of-touch or uncool. It can be an activity embraced by anyone at any age. On top of that, it can be a life-affirming and even life-extending passion, as well as a deeply meditative practice.
Gardening has so many positive benefits for so many different aspects of your well-being. From your body to your mind to the meals you create, a garden can be a great investment. So put on that tacky straw hat, get your hands in the dirt, and don’t be afraid to admit you’re having fun.