As gardening continues to make its comeback, people are getting used to the obvious benefits, like thriving farm markets, farm-to-table restaurants and a boost in backyard bee populations.
But there are even richer paybacks for those willing to get their hands a little dirty, even if it’s just with container plants on their patio, said Meghan Jados, a registered dietitian at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial Hospital.
Just over one in three Americans grow some kind of food, according to the National Gardening Association, the highest level in decades.
Many of them are health and eco-conscious millennials like Jados, who are embracing gardens in record numbers.
“We moved into a new house about five years ago on 3 acres,” she said. “The previous owners had a huge garden and had already done much of the work. My husband and I looked at each other and thought, ‘Why not?’”
Since then, the couple has learned to till, plant and harvest their garden, while caring for twins girls, now 5, two Great Danes and two careers.
During gardening season, she says her happy place is sitting in the dirt, harvesting green beans, admiring her cabbages or freezing sauce made from her own basil and tomatoes.
And she’s found plenty of reasons to inspire any beginner to tiptoe toward their greener side.
She says gardens:
1. Boost health and happiness
Numerous studies have shown that people who garden are less stressed, have better moods and feel a greater sense of belonging. They’re angry less often, and less likely to feel fatigued. Jados says it comes down to mindfulness: “Listening to bees, seeing an occasional snake, getting my hands dirty–it helps me stay grounded and right in the moment.”
2. Enrich meals
While Jados’ family loves garden produce in season, she loves extending it, too. “I shred zucchini and freeze it so I can use it in recipes all winter long. I’ve made pickles. And for now, I freeze my tomato sauce, but I hope to learn how to can it soon.”
3. Teach kids healthy habits
Research has shown that kids who spend time in gardens grow up to eat more produce. “I get such a kick out of seeing one of my twins eat a sugar-snap pea right off the vine,” she said.
4. Transform communities
Small private gardens and community gardens, which can include farms like Urban Roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Growing Good in Muskegon, boost health and improve food deserts. Researchers found that people in low-income communities had less stress, ate more produce and exercised more when they participated in gardening activities.
5. Are as good as going to the gym
Experts estimate a 155-pound person burns about 167 calories in 30 minutes of gardening. That’s more than weightlifting, golf or calisthenics.
6. Provide more flavor
Not only are herbs among the easiest things to grow, but they’re also among the healthiest.
“When we cook with more herbs and spices, we can use less salt and fat,” Jados said. “They’re so flavorful–plus, they’ve got valuable nutritional properties in their own right. And they’re also easy to freeze at the end of the season.”
7. Encourage optimism
“There’s just a great sense of accomplishment when you start with just a seed and watch it turn into something real,” she said.
Her nomination for most miraculous payback? Zucchini, since a single plant can yield between 3 and 9 pounds a season.
Her only caveat for new gardeners? Start small. She and her husband scaled their garden back by two thirds, replanting it with grass to make their garden more manageable.
“Big gardens are time-consuming, and at the height of the season, that can get overwhelming,” she said. “It’s important to know how much time you’re willing to devote.”
Finally, she says it helps to shake off any perfectionism before you get started.
“You don’t have to be perfectly organic, or start everything from seeds. And there are going to be failures. We keep striking out with Brussels sprouts,” she said. “Just get out there and try it.”