The Mental and Physical Benefits of Growing Food
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
Beneath a crisp bluebird sky, bumblebees cruised through the air. The tall garlic plants were gently moving with the breeze. When we visited the GroEat Garlic Farm in July, a group of teenagers were gathered at the edge of a expansive garlic patch. Birds chirped overhead, and a warm breeze blew through. One of the boys, with curly blond hair asked "Can we dig one up?" I handed him my trusty pitch fork. He scored a circle around a garlic plant that must have caught his fancy. With a few piercing jabs, he freed the large garlic bulb from the earth. Our team member, and therapist excitedly pointed out how a garlic's journey into a plant parallels the recovery process for those with mental health issues. She said, "Come winter, when perennials and native plants are dormant and apple trees shed their leaves, it looks like there's no hope. There actually is. Garlic is planted in the fall, establishes roots and somehow, magically survives the long cold winter. In spring it begins a new journey, with new foliage, reaching for the sunlight."
Jere Folgert, the owner of GroEat Farm told the teenagers, "Growing garlic is a little different from growing other vegetables. Legumes such as peas and beans produce many seeds in pods. We eat these seeds as food. We can also save these seeds, let them dry, and plant them next year. Most garlic growers -- grow garlic from a clove." Jere reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of cloves and passed them out to the teenagers. "They look like mandarin orange slices" one of the girls whispered. "Hardneck garlic plants produce a bulb or head underground, and the bulb is made up of many cloves. This is what we eat, and, this is what we plant in the fall. The garlic plant also produces true "garlic seed" at the end of a garlic scape, but most garlic growers remove the scapes of bolting garlic to ensure the plant’s energy is directed to the bulb for maximum size." Jere used garden clippers and removed two "curly pig tail" garlic scapes, and gave them to one of the boys. "...The scapes are pig-tail shaped and produce flowers and seeds. Garlic has a flowering stalk or scape, which has a plumb bob-shaped umbrella at the end. Inside the thumb-size vessel is an intricate arrangement of tiny flowers and bulbils which look like miniature garlic cloves. But we don't plant these, we plant the cloves."
The team member, and therapist pointed out "Plants are unique in that they offer sensory stimulation such as taste, texture and fragrance."
Jere added "Garlic cloves have these cool internal clocks that tell them when they can begin to form roots! The sun will shine, The rain will fall, The cloves will sprout and grow up tall."
A smiling girl added, "It's amazing these beautiful plants can grow from a small clove !" -- her red hair gently blowing in the breeze. Jere said , "Just like all of us, it takes patience and resilience to survive and thrive!"
A few of the teenagers put their hands on the narrow garlic leaves. One of the guys pointed out how the sun and the thick green leaves casted shadows onto the mulch below. And how the leaves were casting unique designs on the dirt. "Do you guys notice the long, shapely patterns?" Jere added, " On average there usually are around 12 garlic leaves per garlic plant; and each leaf corresponds to a thin, papery skin that wraps the garlic bulb into a cute little package." Observing is a big part of the therapy.
Horticultural therapy is rooted in the idea that interacting with plants can bring about well-being, whether it's tending a garden or growing garden herbs in pots. Horticultural therapy (also known as social and therapeutic horticulture or STH) is defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) as the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. Many studies have found that just being in nature -- such as sitting and observing pollinators as they travel from flower to flower, or taking a walk in the forest or a park -- can improve not only your state of mind but your blood pressure, your heart rate and your stress hormone levels and, over time, can lead to a longer life. Gardening also has physical benefits, such as increased hand-eye coordination. There's the digging soil, and adding organic compost material to the soil. Digging with shovels and moving dirt around helps their balance, especially when they're walking down to the garden carrying a tool. As garlic cloves or other vegetable seed germinates, and the seedling develops, it proves to the individual that their efforts and patience made a difference. As the plant continues to grow and reach for the sun, it builds self-esteem, it builds confidence, and it makes the person feel like they are sharing in the success.
Since the late 1700’s gardening has been known to have therapeutic value on the mind, as it is known to bring restorative therapeutic properties. Therapeutic gardening can be a powerful way to ground psychiatric clients because it puts them in contact with nature and other people and gets their bodies moving. Grounding techniques help people detach from emotional pain by reconnecting with the external world and the present moment. Taking care of a plant or a garden with guidance from a therapist is a wonderful and powerful synergy.
"This is how I begin every morning." Jere told the group of teenagers. It's a routine the youthful-looking 50-year-old began after dealing with some hard times. He helps the garlic plants flourish by removing competition (pulling weeds). Using a trusty spade from his grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900's, he is digging into the soil and pouring an organic fertilizer "tea" from a watering can to nourish the garlic. "Even if I'm just watering a plant or trimming a garlic scape, it just gets me in touch with nature, and I try to listen to what nature's trying to tell me that morning," Jere Said.
"Planting garlic, and watching it grow is therapy. No one was sitting down saying, OK, now we're in therapy, and here is what we do," " he said. "When I'm working with garlic... it's a very calming experience. It was really, really an important connection for me."
Studies have found that horticultural therapy supports recovery and improves mood. Studies have shown that being outdoors in nature, including gardening, has therapeutic benefits on mental illness. A study co-authored by Gretchen Daily at the Stanford Woods Institute for The Environment, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. The results from this study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world. Their findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.
We as humans evolved in a green world with plants -- over millions of years. Trees and vegetation have always provided us food, medicine and shelter. People and plants share an ancient bond. Using that people-plant connection for therapy and rehabilitation is a powerful idea.