Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Healthy Lifestyle with Edible Landscaping

After a day of planting the garden, I was heading for the house, looking forward to a hot shower, when I glanced at the trellis of sugar snap peas and remembered one other task. Harvesting peas.

I didn't think I had any energy left but just a few moments among the vines, their delicate yet strong tendrils winding up the net, their pink and white flowers transforming into fruits, and I felt revived. My fingers brushed their rubbery leaves before moving to the pods, quickly filling up my other hand with the harvest. The aroma of strawberries drifted from a patch behind me.

Pea tendril at M R Gardens - by Vickie Burick
When I need a lift, the garden entices my senses. When I need to burn off nervous energy, the garden asks for my hard work. When I need to settle down, the garden invites me for barefoot walks on dew-covered clover. When I need to learn, the garden gives me the right challenge. When I need inspiration, the garden provides the setting to unlock my creativity.

This summer, I'm writing a series about the advantages of edible landscaping. The aspect that fuels my daily motivation most is the health benefit. Nutritious food, physical activity and time spent outdoors most immediately come to mind. But just scratch the surface and we find other benefits with much deeper roots.

More nutrients and probiotics

According to studies, garden fare tends to have a higher nutrient content than store-bought produce. A hypothesis for why this is true is that modern varieties are bred and selected for traits desirable for mass production. Heirloom vegetables that we can grow in our home gardens may not ship and store well but likely have higher nutritional levels.

In a small scale-garden, it's easy to build soil so that plants can better access nutrients. My style of Microbe Rich (M R) no-till gardening encourages a healthy ecosystem of beneficial microorganisms that break down the soil and turn nutrients into a form that plants can uptake. These nutrients help the plants grow healthy and feed the fruits, which then fuel us.

Planting at M R Gardens - by Vickie Burick
Additionally, studies show the importance of simply touching the soil. When we come in contact with certain types of beneficial bacteria, we experience increases in serotonin, which lifts mood and helps with memory function. Getting our hands in the soil also encourages probiotics to enter our bodies. Just as the soil needs a balance of "good" and "bad" microorganisms, so do our guts.

Better eating habits

When healthy food is growing out our back door—food that we invested time to grow ourselves—we're encouraged to adjust our routines to make sure we eat it. We look for recipes for what's in season. We cook with new types of vegetables or try ones we thought we didn't like only to find we do if it's fresh and grown well.

We can also grow the types of plants that are suited for our unique disposition, whether that be spinach or a medicinal herb. With the garden central to my life, I feel like my health improves as I age. I'm eating food that, before edible landscaping, I had never even heard of. Like goumis, a nitrogen-fixing shrub, with fruits high in vitamin A and E as well as lycopene, an antioxidant. 

Goumi berries at M R Gardens
Moving around the garden

Time and again I have benefited from the therapeutic quality of garden work. Even tasks like mulching and digging can be meditative, as superfluous thoughts leave my mind. I feel cleansed after a day in the garden, and my sleep is sound.

The movement of shoveling, squatting and bustling around encourages the flow of the lymphatic system, essential for healthy immune function. Lymphatic fluid, circulating throughout our cells, picks up and transports away toxins and infectious organisms. In the winter, when I'm not gardening as much, my stagnant neck muscles are more likely to cause pain than when I'm moving them often.

Connection with plants—and our food supply

When I'm slicing vegetables for dinner, I'm remembering how they first started as a seed. That makes me more thankful than when I buy them from the store. My gratefulness continues as I eat, encouraging me to chew slowly, promoting better digestion.
Snow peas at M R Gardens
Herbalists say we feel the healing effects of herbs by just being around the plants, whether or not we're tincturing them or making teas. When herbalists prepare medicine, they carry a nurturing air so that healing energy transfers to the medicine.

I believe the same can be said for how our food is grown. In a therapeutic gardening situation, we're more likely to carry a gentle, appreciative essence as we work than say, an overworked, underpaid farmworker might. Whoever eats our food may taste a hint of that experience.

Never-ending growing and learning

As a once avid traveler, I relate to those who go to the other side of the world seeking life's answers. Yet time and again I think to myself, I have my own Nepal right in my backyard. Gardening will teach you whatever lessons you are meant to learn. Maybe it's patience. Maybe it's relaxation. Maybe it's a heightened understanding of the way the world works. Even if you're not asking, the garden will provide what's most needed.

This article was published in the July 2015 issue of WNC Woman.