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Positively Beautiful: Gardening for the health of it

’Tis the season for getting a little dirt under our fingernails or at least donning a pair of garden gloves.

I get to watch out my office windows as Farm In The Dell creates a beautiful community garden on our east lot of Catalyst. The dirt is rich and black, and seedlings are just starting to emerge, full of promise and possibility.

This weekend, my family and I visited organic farmer Noreen Thomas near Kragnes, Minn. Grant got to feed the chickens, pet a huge friendly dog and see a very new baby lamb.

We also saw Tomas’ high tunnel, a greenhouse with clear plastic wrap for walls that allows for almost year-round gardening. She supplies the HoDo and many other area restaurants with produce and eggs throughout the year.

I remember my very first little house in Seattle, where I lived during residency training. My garden was bigger than the house and lined with brick pathways that I salvaged from an old chimney.

I really did have a white picket fence in front, which proved a lovely backdrop for delphiniums. I grew vegetables and couldn’t keep up with the bounty. I unwittingly planted mint near my back steps, and it spread so much that it might be covering the house by now. I had old-fashioned roses, dinner-plate dahlias and 50-plus perennials.

Sadly, my current neighborhood has a snooty and dated “no-vegetable garden” policy. I guess they haven’t looked at Pinterest to see how beautiful gardens can be.

For me in Seattle during the craziness and stress of medical training, it was much needed therapy. There was something creative, functional and generous about it.

A recent study from the Netherlands has confirmed what I’ve always suspected to be true: Gardening can fight stress better than almost any other form of relaxation.

As CNN reported on the study: “After completing a stressful task, two groups of people were instructed to either read indoors or garden for 30 minutes. Afterward, the group that gardened reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the hormone cortisol.”

Cortisol, of course, is often referred to as “the stress hormone.” When it’s in balance, it’s a necessary and vital hormone that helps your body to function properly. But when it’s elevated, it can negatively affect your immune system, cardiovascular health and metabolism.

Want lower stress levels and a trimmer waistline? At least in the summer, skip the gym a few times and plant a tomato.

Other gardening benefits include better mental health, improved brain function and better nutrition. Research abounds regarding gardening programs showing benefits for depression, bipolar disorder, at-risk youth and Alzheimer’s risk reduction. Kids who help in the garden are more likely to try and enjoy fruits and vegetables.

So if you have space for a plot, go for it. It’s not too late to get something in the ground.

And if you don’t have much outdoor space, are pressed for time or live in a “no veg” zone like me, here are a few ideas that still give the pleasure and health benefits of digging around in the dirt:

1. Start an herb garden.

It’s small, manageable and edible! You can grow herbs year-round indoors on a window sill or table-top, but they especially love a summer porch or patio.

Search Better Homes & Gardens on the web for great pointers and some how-to videos.

2. Go low maintenance.

Most of the effort comes early in the season, but you can minimize work later on by making good plant choices. If you’re starting a flower garden, marigolds, daisies and mums are among the easiest to keep alive. You could even plant edible flowers like nasturtiums and calendula.

Vegetables like zucchini, bush beans, cucumber, potatoes, garlic, Swiss chard and tomatoes aren’t too demanding once you get them in the ground. Asparagus and rhubarb are perennials that come back year after year and require very little care once established.

Use mulch in between plants to cut down on weeding. And while seeds are nice, use plants so you have a running start.

3. Think outside the “box.”

Folks in big cities – crunched for time and space – have come up with all kinds of creative ways to grow plants in teeny-tiny spaces.

Check out Pinterest for clever ideas like a pallet garden, gutter garden, tower garden or a vertical garden. Function meets art, and the results are gorgeous and delicious.

4. Call a farmer/gardener a friend.

If it’s still too much, you can get a CSA (community supported agriculture) share. You pay a fee for a summer’s worth of farm produce, delivered in a box once a week.

Some farms have events that you can participate in, like a picking party so you can still get your hands dirty.

If you want to learn the basics of gardening before, a huge and somewhat overwhelming amount of information is available on the web and in bookstores. One of the best ways to get started is to chat with other gardeners, who can be found in local garden clubs, master gardening programs, the extension service and community gardens.