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Health Fusion: While the soil slumbers

Even in the dead of winter when the ground is frozen solid, you can still reap the health benefits of gardening.

Vegetable garden
Viv Williams' kitchen garden from last season
Viv Williams
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ROCHESTER — This week I attended the first 2022 meeting of the Olmsted County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. I felt like a new person afterward. After a long stretch of arctic weather, talking about getting our hands dirty in a garden melted away the gloom that tries to creep into my soul in January — especially during this year's COVID January.

The meeting confirmed for me what research reveals. That gardening and nature benefit mind and body. In addition to inspiring you to move more, socialize and eat more fresh food, a University of Minnesota study found that gardening is associated with a high level of well being. And for those reasons, the middle of winter may just be the best time to dig into the garden, even if you don't have a single tool that could crack open the frozen Minnesota soil.

Speaking of tools, you might want to consider polishing them up now so they're ready to use later.

"While the soil slumbers, we should be cleaning our tools, sharpening our pruners and taking a wire brush to our dividing forks, spades and shovels," says Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, the Olmsted County Extension Master Gardener vice chair.

She also recommends that you rub wooden handles with linseed oil. And if you start your own seedlings, Kirkpatrick suggests that you clean flats and cell packs with a weak bleach solution first to prevent fungal pathogens from causing problems with young seedlings.

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Kirkpatrick shares my affinity for all things gardening.

"It's the fresh air, sounds of nature, getting my hands dirty, moving heavy wheelbarrow loads and all the bending and digging that does it for me," says Kirkpatrick. "It sure beats going to the gym!"

In fact, an article published in Clinical Medicine, a journal of the Royal College of Physicians in the UK, notes that you can burn a similar amount of calories in the garden as you do in the gym, especially when raking, shoveling or mowing (not on a riding mower). And they add that gardening also helps build strength and dexterity.

While most of these activities happen in warmer months, now is the time I start planning and plotting out the garden — what to plant and where to plant it. I'll start some seeds indoors a little later in winter (stay tuned for that article) and Kirkpatrick has a great tip to help you figure out if seeds you still have from previous seasons are viable.

"Do a germination test," says Kirkpatrick. "Use a paper napkin or a half sheet of paper towel and place 10 seeds in a row on one edge. Get the seeds and carefully fold in half a few times. Fully wet [the rolled towel] and place in a warm spot."

Then, after about a week, she says to count the number of seeds that have sprouted. If three out of 10 have sprouted, then the germination rate is approximately 30%. If eight out of 10 have sprouted, then the germination rate is approximately 80%. Kirkpatrick suggests you plan to seed more heavily if using seeds with lower germination rates. That way you'll have better luck ending up with a sizable yield.

In my opinion, you can't really compare preparing for the upcoming season in winter with actually getting outside and into the garden. But until spring's warmth begins to thaw the earth, cleaning implements, reading up on gardening techniques, preparing for planting and connecting with other people who love to garden keeps my spirits up during the deep cold of winter.

Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at vwilliams@newsmd.com.

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For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at vwilliams@newsmd.com . Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

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Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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