Gardening: Adding Years to Your Life and Enhancing Your Days

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Gardening: Adding Years to Your Life and Enhancing Your Days

By Kathy Megyeri

“Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the soul.”

LUTHER BURBANK

Roz Johe, 57, and her mother, Vickie Chavenello, 81, in Vero Beach, FL, find daily therapy in their garden. Roz says, “The benefits of seeing our plants grow from seeds are very rewarding and bring us so much joy and happiness. And now that my mother is painting watercolor portraits of our flowers and even selling her works of art, gardening has added a new dimension to our lives.”

Vickie Chavenello’s watercolor of purple thistle.

Johe and Chavenello are proof positive of the benefits of gardening, but there are even more and better results. Dr. Dan Buettner, author and longevity expert, has spent years circling the globe studying similarities among centenarians (people who live to be 100 and older) to determine the qualities that led them to lead longer, healthier and happier lives.

Roz Johe poses in her lush garden.
Roz Johe poses in her lush garden.

Not surprising, most ate a plant-based diet, had strong social support networks and exercised regularly, but unexpectedly, Buettner found that most gardened well into their old age which seemed to add years to their lives.

How does gardening benefit your health?

  1. Gardening gets you into nature and exposes you to sunlight, fresh air and plant life.  Even taking nature walks lowers blood pressure and anxiety. Environmental researcher Roger Ulrich concluded that we respond favorably to nature because we evolved in nature and gardening forces us to be regularly immersed in nature.
  2. Gardening is good exercise that burns an average of 300-500 calories an hour and restores dexterity and strength, according to Richard Thompson, a researcher at London’s Royal College of Physicians. Mulching, weeding, digging up stones and planting bushes can be physically exhausting.
  3. You eat what you grow if you grow fruits and vegetables and gain enormous health benefits. Most fruits and vegetables lose 30 percent of their nutrients three days after harvest due to respiration, a natural process by which they continue to “breathe” after they’ve been removed from the ground, no matter how freshly picked and displayed in supermarkets, food stands and grocery stores.
  4. Gardening not only relieves stress but challenges the mind. It forces one to be “in the moment” and be versatile because gardeners have to change plans if they notice a fungus infestation, see produce that has to be immediately harvested, or observe weeds that seem to have just appeared. Gardening forces one to deal with the natural world and thus eliminates worries and outside concerns. Some even consider it a form of meditation. A study was released in the Netherlands that showed that people who gardened after completing a stressful task versus reading recovered faster based on a test that measured cortisol, a “stress chemical.”
  5. Gardening can be taken to any level of difficulty. Tomato plants and leafy greens are great for the novice and perform best in late summer or early fall. Herbs do well for those in small apartments. Writer Minda Zetlin started her straw bale garden by planting vegetables, fruits and flowers directly into bales of straw and was thrilled with the results.

Once you develop a green thumb, you’ll appreciate the efforts of others who take gardening to a whole new level and you’ll gain new-found appreciation for the people who cherish and showcase their gardens. For example, Jackie Kennedy’s Rose Garden on the White House grounds is currently undergoing a massive renovation to make it handicapped accessible and be expanded with 200 rose bushes planted in pastel colors to make it feel more open and sunnier than before. 

Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the world’s wealthiest women and the original owner of Mar-A-Lago and her Hillwood Estate in Washington, DC, where she’s buried in her own lush gardens, was so influenced by her own mother who gardened that now, visitors from around the world put Hillwood on their list of best gardens to visit when they come to the states. Her orchid collection alone garners well-deserved admiration. 

A photograph by John Alfred Piver of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1935.
PHOTO: COURTESY HILLWOOD ESTATE, MUSEUM & GARDENS

Fortunately for garden lovers everywhere, a new book written by Hillwood’s long-time and well-regarded Executive Director Kate Markert and published by Rizzoli was just released to glowing reviews. Entitled “A Garden for All Seasons: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood”, celebrates this historic home and gardens and highlights plants that thrive each season. 

Lavishly illustrated and with a foreward written by designer Charlotte Moss, this book is the first to be written about the history and design of the estate’s grounds.  My personal on-site favorite is the Lunar Lawn where Mrs. Post threw dazzling garden parties but when I desire calm and serenity, I visit the Japanese garden with its stream and pagoda or sit next to Mrs. Post ‘s obelisk and reflect on her many contributions and gardening skills. 

This book will be my holiday present for fellow gardeners to be inspired by one of the best, but right now, most of us will go out to our own plots to gather a bunch of sunflowers, to pick a few tomatoes for supper and to be so grateful for whatever other bounty is available. And at the same time we’ll appreciate the hours spent in nature, the exercise we’re getting while lessening our stress, the fact that we’re adding years to our lives and still being inspired by others who have truly made gardening an art form.

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