Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Subtle ways plants heal

The following is a real-life, unsolicited, unfabricated email to me from a friend from Raleigh who visited me for a weekend last fall:

"I felt so great when I woke up on Monday. I really do think it's because I ate so much healthy food at your house! But I started thinking about it and I was like, well, my diet is generally not that horrible. I could do better about not eating frozen dinners at lunch but I do I try to add in veggies and then I usually eat two veggies with some protein for dinner. I think it might have something to do with the quality of the food from your garden. What do you think? This could be the topic for an article!

Other than growing my own vegetables, which I don't currently see happening right now with our little plot of shady, wet earth, what do you recommend for getting higher quality vegetables? I'm not even sure that buying at the farmer's market really changes anything. Definitely eating organic, which we generally do. Any other suggestions? Any vitamins/minerals you could recommend?


I decided to take Christine up on her idea to write about this subject mainly because her words are so similar to what I hear from other visitors. Friends who have a far less healthy diet than Christine and are hesitant to try unfamiliar vegetables are amazed how good my food tastes. They also tell me how well they sleep at my house and how revived they feel after visits. So I've developed several theories about why their bodies respond so favorably.

So much butternut squash grew last fall that they won't all be eaten until this summer. Photo by Vickie Burick
I'm a fairly simple cook. So when visitors rave about the taste of my dishes, I assume they are actually complimenting my gardening talent rather than my cooking skills. Moreover, they are reacting to the taste of fresh produce straight out of the garden. I usually harvest my vegetables just before I start cooking (or even while I'm cooking). Often people assume they don't like a particular vegetable, but then they eat that same vegetable freshly picked and garden-grown and their opinion entirely changes.

I've discussed in previous articles some reasons for the abundant flavor of garden fare. But why would Christine and others feel better after eating my food for a weekend?

One theory is that garden fare tends to have more nutrients than store-bought vegetables grown on a large scale. It has been shown that the nutrient content of food today is much lower than it was 50-plus years ago. An often-cited 2004 University of Texas study, headed by biochemist Donald Davis, Ph.D., analyzed 43 common fruits and vegetables and found that six out of 13 nutrients showed declines between 1950 and 1999.

A hypothesis for why modern-day vegetables have fewer nutrients is their altered genetics. As varieties are continually bred and selected for traits desirable for mass production, they lose some of the nutritional content that is in older heirloom varieties. We are more likely to grow these heirlooms in our home gardens.

I would also add: it's easier to gain a higher nutrient content in the home garden if we use sustainable gardening techniques. My style of Microbe Rich ("M R") no-till gardening encourages a healthy soil ecosystem with a large population of beneficial microorganisms. These break down the abundant mineral content in the red Appalachian clay into a form that the plants can uptake. Those minerals help the plants grow healthy and feed the fruits, which then feed our bodies.

Now, I've never run scientific tests to compare the nutrient level of my vegetables to store-bought, but I consistently recognize a difference in their energetics. In late winter, after I've given up on growing greens under plastic tunnels and started supplementing my diet with produce from the grocery, I can tell the difference in my energy. I start craving my own fresh vegetables. As soon as my garden picks up in spring, I feel more like myself.

Fresh spring lettuce at M R Gardens. Photo by Vickie Burick.
Which brings me to another theory to why Christine experienced a lift after eating my food—she was benefiting from the energetics of gardening and from the essence of the plants themselves.

I'm usually hesitant to write about such topics because I don't want to turn away left-brained thinkers who might raise an eyebrow at the idea of "plant energy." Besides, as soon as I declare a theory that seems specifically true to me as true for everyone, life events remind me that there are infinite ways of experiencing the world. Almost guaranteed, as soon as I publish this, life will present to me an alternative theory.

However, a class that I'm taking at the Appalachian School of Holistic Herbalism, "Energetic and Esoteric Herbalism," is helping me gain confidence in sharing bits of inner wisdom, which may not be so easily proven. So here goes: I agree with herbalists who say we are affected by the essence of plants just by being around them. We don't have to ingest them to benefit from them. And I'll go a step further and say the energy we give to the plants while growing them affects the food itself.

In the growing season, medicinal herbs surround my house. As Christine walked to my front door, she passed tulsi, ashwagandha, valerian, chamomile, lavender, Echinacea, lovage, fennel, calendula and mint. According to many herbalists, Christine would feel the healing effects of these plants just by staying at my house.

Front yard at M R Gardens. Photo by Vickie Burick.
I also think the essence that I carry while I garden is more therapeutic than say an overworked, underpaid farmworker or even a stressed-out, overly busy small organic farmer. Gardening gives so much to me. Whoever eats my produce will likely taste a hint of that experience. When herbalists make a tincture or essential oil, they are conscious of their intentions: they carry a nurturing air that they hope will transfer to the medicine. Couldn't the same be said about how we garden?

So, if my theory is true, what can Christine do at her own house to help her wake up every morning feeling great?

She mentions that she has limited growing space, but in fact she has more room than she realizes. She has an open front lawn with ample sunlight—enough space to grow most of the vegetables she and her husband need. We often don't think of our front yard as the place for a food garden, but with the help of an edible landscape designer, these gardens can be aesthetically pleasing, blending with the rest of the neighborhood.

If she can't arrange her schedule to keep up with a vegetable garden, she could certainly plant low-maintenance perennial medicinal herbs that might help improve her wellbeing.

Perhaps most importantly is the energy she is giving and receiving while gardening. It's all about the mindset. I'm not suggesting she has to be in a perky mood while out in the yard. In fact, to quote my acupuncturist, "the earth likes to take our pain." That statement makes sense to me as the garden thrives on decaying organic matter (just as my kitty loves to knead near my heart when I'm feeling blue).

New England Aster at M R Gardens, Photo by Vickie Burick.
Christine just needs to allow for a therapeutic experience to take place while she is gardening. She is appreciating her time outdoors in the sunshine, allowing herself to be open to her intuition so that she that she can receive the healing power of the plants. As she gains more experience gardening, she'll naturally pick activities that suit her mood. So if she is feeling nurturing, then she might transplant or seed. If she's rambunctious, she might mulch. If she needs to think through a problem, she might choose to weed. Sure, the physical activity and the sunshine are boosting her mood, but I think something else that's less easy to detect is going on as well.

Later, when she goes to cut the herb to put in her tea, she might regain the benefits of that energetic exchange.

There could have been a number of reasons why Christine felt revived after her trip to Asheville. Perhaps it was the mountain air. Or a little time away from work. Or good conversation with a long-time friend. 

But after spending so much time with plants, I'm convinced they are healing us in ways we are barely aware of.