Gardening has taken me to new places and given me new experiences that I never imagined. I began gardening to relieve stress and bring a bit of nature into a harshly artificial environment in the city. Little did I know that first bag of daffodils would be the beginning of a life-changing hobby. Gardening in the city has helped me grow -- socially, environmentally, nutritionally, and spiritually.
The most obvious benefit of gardening is beautification. Plants can soften the harsh feel of concrete buildings, asphalt roads, and steel beams. For instance, Boston ivy can transform a sterile concrete wall into a lush, vertical oasis with spectacular fall color. Less obvious but no less important are the effects on us from the improved aesthetics. Flowers and plants brighten people's days. When I planted a parkway garden near a train station, I was surprised at how many commuters stopped to thank me. That simple flower garden made their walk to the train a pleasant part of their daily journey.
Neighbors gather to plant and harvest wheat in this urban garden. (Photo courtesy of Rosalind Creasy)
The positive effects are even greater within a neighborhood. Gardening is contagious. All it takes is one person planting flowering shrubs or colorful containers to inspire others to do the same. Pansies and mums begin to appear everywhere. Neighbors who have had only passing conversations begin to chat and discuss plant varieties, horticultural techniques, and landscape services. Bonds develop because gardening becomes a shared interest. Swapping stories about gardening fosters a sense of community, giving people a common thread that recalls the close community ties that characterized our grandparents' day.
The quest to learn more about gardening leads to taking classes, joining garden clubs, attending flower shows, and visiting public gardens. The more I became involved, the more my knowledge grew. So did my social network. Through these types of events, I was introduced to like-minded people I would never have met without the gardening connection. Classmates and colleagues have become lifelong friends with whom I can discuss South American bulbs, new cultivars of hydrangeas, and heirloom tomatoes. There is a fellowship among those that dig in the soil. It's like finding a fellow sports fan, except in gardening everybody roots for the same team.
Humans are not the only city denizens benefiting from greening. Ecologically, gardens provide food, shelter, and habitat to a host of animals. In cities they are essential sanctuaries for butterflies, songbirds, bees, and other wildlife. Even the pests of our gardens, such as aphids, slugs, stinkbugs, voles, mice, rabbits, and squirrels, help restore a more natural ecology to a city. These pests feed ladybugs, damselflies, toads, hawks, owls, and other beneficial creatures that could not survive in urban environments devoid of gardens and green space.
Gardening helps impart a better understanding of nature and its cycles. Before I gardened I had plant blindness and environmental indifference. I didn't even know that the street trees flowered. Here I was in Chicago surrounded by them, but it was not until my second or third year gardening that I noticed maples flowering in late winter. Soon many seasonal changes became obvious. I observed moon cycles, diurnal temperature changes, sunlight patterns, bird migration schedules, early-season worm mating, late-season damselfly mating, and most critically, weather patterns. I could be a guest host on the Weather Channel!
The more you garden, the more your environmental awareness is heightened. Topics like deforestation, invasive species, fertilizer runoff, eutrophication of ponds, prescribed burns, impermeable city surfaces, point source pollution, and eating locally become easier to understand and more relevant. If everyone in America gardened, we would be past the acknowledgement phase and on to the solutions for our environmental problems.
Plants clean the air, filter storm water, prevent erosion, and bind toxins. These are environmental benefits that can be directly translated into monetary assets. For example, what would it cost to build, install, and power an air filter that did the work of a 50-foot elm tree in downtown Chicago's Grant Park?
Spinach and herb mussels is now one of my specialties.
Of all the ways I have grown through gardening, the development of my culinary skills has been the most surprising. Right away I realized I would learn a lot about natural science and meet plenty of good people, but I didn't expect urban gardening to turn me into a better cook. Growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs made me want to use them in new ways. After tasting fresh homegrown produce, there is no going back.
Now during the growing season this man who was once satisfied with eating green beans out of a can prepares dishes like spinach and herb mussels; okra, broccoli, and pepper stir fry; candied sweet potatoes; blanched kale with oregano; roasted lamb chops marinated in sage-tomato sauce; rosemary fingerling potatoes; and chicken pot pie with peas, parsnips, and thyme. Gardening not only turned me into a better cook, it also improved my nutrition.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that involvement in school garden programs caused students to eat more fruits and vegetables, which increased their intake of vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber (see footnote). In this study the students more than doubled their intake of fruits and vegetables -- going from 1.93 to 4.5 servings per day.
Gardening also provides healthy exercise -- burning calories, stretching and strengthening muscles and bones. Gardening provides a direct link to a healthier lifestyle.
Gardening lifts the spirits. People smile, reflect, and meditate in gardens. There is also a connection to our ancestors who tended plants. Often there are times when I feel connected to their collective stewardship of the land. Even for those who are not religious, there is an undeniably spiritual element to coaxing life from the soil under a blue sky.
But gardening need not begin as a deep, life-changing experience. The simple pleasures provided by growing a strawberry in a patio container are enough reason to start gardening. Although everyone can benefit from digging in the soil, urbanites, in particular, have a lot to gain. Typically, our artificial environments have been created to limit nature's influence and therefore limit our interaction with the natural world that nourishes us. Greening your space, whether indoors or out, helps reestablish that connection and helps you grow.
(McAlessee J, Rankin L. "Garden-Based Nutrition Education Affects Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Sixth-Grade Adolescents." Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2007; 107:662-665.)