What was that?
You thought gardening was just about food and your stomach and yummy things that you can eat again and again? Well, today I am going to show you how gardening is actually more about your head, your mind, and your brain, first. And then, of course, it's also about your stomach.
I can't wait to inspire you to grow your own happiness this season. Let's dive into how gardening makes you happy.
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Gardening Is Good for Your Mental Health
I want to stop here before I go any further, and just say that if you are struggling with harmful thoughts, with suicidal thoughts, or with serious depression, don't be ashamed about it and please, please reach out for help. The Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Please stop right now and call them to get help. If you're having hard times, that is totally a normal part of the human experience. Don't do anything that would keep you from growing with us tomorrow and next season. Call that number if you need help.
Everyone Needs a Strategy to Maintain Their Mental Health
We all have our ups and downs, and we all have days where our thoughts are challenging and hard to control. I've had my ups and downs in my own life too. So today I want to talk to you about how the garden can be part of the healing and the health that our minds need in this current day and age.
So I'm going to open up with a couple of lines from my book, Kitchen Garden Revival.
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Excerpt on Mental Health from Kitchen Garden Revival:
Why kitchen garden?
Mental health is quickly becoming the key indicator of overall well being—depression, anxiety, stress, and burnout are all serious in and of themselves, but those challenges are also linked to cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Our minds and bodies are connected in ways we're just starting to understand, and in this fast-paced and demanding world, we've got to find ways to slow down, reconnect with nature, and care for ourselves again.
When you learn to grow yourself, you literally grow your self.
The biggest reason to have a kitchen garden is for your happiness. Stepping outside into the garden each day has been proven to help do just that. And there is no more practical way to push you outside than if the tastiest parts of your dinner are growing right in that spot. You've got to eat anyway, so why not pursue a mindful activity that not only feeds your mind and soul, but also fills your stomach? A kitchen garden may just be the most practical hobby you can pursue. You'll learn skills, get good exercise, wake up your senses each time you step outdoors, and return with an armload of fresh food.
Our minds and bodies are connected in ways we're just starting to understand, and in this fast-paced and demanding world, we've got to find ways to slow down, reconnect with nature, and care for ourselves again. When you learn to grow yourself, you literally grow your self.
Pop Culture Suggests We've Outgrown Gardening
That's from the preface of my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, and I really believe those words wholeheartedly. I tell people that I sell happiness in a box—a raised bed kitchen garden box full of soil and plants and seeds. It seems like I'm pedaling and selling the garden, but really, what I'm trying to sell is happiness. I believe, deep down, that there is happiness sitting outside your door, waiting for you to grow it yourself.
When we think about gardening, many of you might picture it as something we've grown past as a civilization.
I grew up watching movies and TV shows where the characters in the story are trying to get off the farm.
I'm going to give you the most basic example, which comes form the Disney movie Planes.
Dusty, a crop duster, is stuck on the farm working to produce food, while his dream is to become a jet and race around the world. The whole story revolves around that ambition, that he's just so ready to leave the farm.
I watched that movie years ago as I was first starting to garden and thought of all the other storylines I'd seen where basically the whole climax of the story tries to answer: Will this character ever succeed at leaving the farm?
Our Health Has Always Depended on Gardens
As I moved into the field of gardening I was met with a little bit of disdain. We obviously all still want to eat, but I think a lot of people working desk jobs believe that going out and digging in the dirt is a waste of their time or not a good investment after all their higher education.
I would like to push against that belief. If you look back over the evolution of the human species, it's the cultivation of the ground and the growing of food that really helped us to become who we are now. Every time people settled down and began to grow crops right where they lived, that's when their civilizations really began to thrive.
Gardening is a piece of our humanity that we should maintain in some form.
I'm not at all saying that every single one of us needs to become a farmer or a homesteader. There's no need to live off the grid or provide 100 percent of our own food. But I do think that gardening, in even the smallest containers, is vital to each human’s happiness. Why?
Because it is in our DNA to be connected to soil and seeds for survival.
Gardening Isn't Just Part of Our History, It's Our Future
I first woke up to this reality when I moved to China and lived in a rural area. This came after growing up during the feminist movement. Don't get me wrong—I'm so thankful to have been raised during that time. It's the reason I am where I am now.
But part of that movement was getting women out of the kitchen, which means we had tons of frozen and packaged meals. I, for one, loved SnackWell's cookies, Frosted Flakes, and Rold Gold pretzels after school. I was pretty disconnected from the source of my food. Food throughout my school years was about opening up the package and taking a bite.
When I moved to China, we would spend nights in small villages, and every bite you took was connected to a physical activity outdoors. No one ate in the early morning when they first woke up. Instead, they headed outside to gather materials for that morning's fire. They would pick the greens and pull leftovers from the evening before and start to put together a midday meal. The first meal of the day would be around 10 am, after they had already been outdoors for a couple of hours gathering materials. After laboring in their fields from about 10:30 to 5:30, they would gather the materials for that evening's dinner.
Dinner was often rice coupled with some kind of soup, typically a mixture of grains, fresh vegetables, and a bone of some sort for flavor.
This was the first time I saw the connection between physical movement, outdoor time, and fresh harvests connected with eating. You couldn’t just open a cupboard and take a bite. You couldn't just open a package or head to the store—you had to move your body and gather materials. You had to work before you could eat. This opened my eyes to food and how we could garden with our whole selves—our bodies and especially our heads.
I want to take my own experience of the ups and downs of my mental health and show you how just the smallest amount of gardening can do so much good for your head, whoever you are.
Here are seven reasons why gardening is for your head first, and then for your stomach.
Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Gets You Outside
We know we need to get outside more often, but sometimes it's kind of hard to do it. I loved reading this study about a new movement called “Park Prescriptions.” It's from a couple of psychologists and doctors who are writing what they call Park Rx for patients struggling with everything from mental health issues to chronic conditions like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. They're not just prescribing medicine. They're saying, "Hey, you need to get outside for at least 20 minutes a day.”
The article talks about how just 20 minutes outside per day will improve your happiness in spades, and of course, like I said in my book, there's no better reason to step outside than if you have to go out there to get some things for dinner. I experienced this firsthand when I started gardening in Houston and grew so many greens that I stopped buying salad mixes from the store. We would have days where it was raining, days where it was cold, and days where it was dark, but I had to go outside to get ingredients for lunch. I didn't have a choice. The lettuce was not sitting in the fridge.
Even during those five minutes of me stepping outside, breathing outside air, feeling whatever nature was handing me that day, I felt better.
There's a reason why they say you need a breath of fresh air, right?
Gardening Is Eco Therapy
There’s this new terminology called “eco therapy,” where they're studying the effects of time spent in nature and how it isn't just beneficial for dealing with obesity or diabetes, but it also reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.
I think it's funny that doctors love to link medicine and prescriptions with effects, but they're very hesitant to draw direct lines with something as un-pharmaceutical as spending time outdoors. And yet they continue to find that people who spend more time outdoors are healthier, not just physically but also mentally.
When you're outside, it's much like having a therapy session. It's not just the air, it's the sounds. It’s been shown that these things can help with people’s blood pressure and cortisol levels.
I think the garden is one of the best excuses to get outside more and help your brain feel better. I can relate to this because, honestly, the years that I struggled most with depression and really hard feelings were the years where I was indoors the most. During college, for instance, I spent four years studying inside with my books and my computer.
Here in Chicago, I've really struggled with the months of cold and darkness and have found that I have to work so much harder to stay happy and to keep my mind clear than I did when I lived in warmer climates and was able to be outdoors more often. I also experienced a lot of depression when I first had my children. I spent so much time indoors during that time, but the minute I would step outside, my mood would immediately change.
Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Makes You Move Your Body
I read a study from Michael Otto, PhD and professor of psychology at Boston University, and he says:
“People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There's much less awareness though of the mental health outcomes and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action. But the link between exercise and mood is very strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise, you're going to get a mood enhancement effect.”
During the COVID pandemic, I started getting out and running for about 20 minutes every morning. On the morning that I skipped my runs, I could feel myself be in a bad mood.
Exercise releases endorphins, it gets our blood pumping, and those things help our minds feel better. Gardening is a great form of exercise. Don't get me wrong—it’s not going to replace your Orange Theory class or your five-mile run. It's not a high cardio workout where your heart is pumping and you're sweating, but it is a slow form of exercise.
One of the neat things about it that I've discovered is when I'm on my 20-minute run, I am ready for those 20 minutes to be up as soon as I get started. As soon as I round that last corner and my watch tells me I've done 2.2 miles, I am done. But gardening is not that kind of exercise.
Gardening Helps You Move Your Body Longer
Gardening, because it is purposeful exercise, you will actually do it for much, much longer. Instead of it being a class, it's something where you're actually taking care of business. You're doing stuff. It's almost a distraction from physical exercise. Studies have shown that when people garden, they keep their heart rate moderately high for a much longer period of time than someone who just shows up to the gym for a 30-minute workout.
Studies show that we need to burn about 2,000 calories a week with exercise. I don't know about you, but I'm always discouraged when I go for a run and come back, only to see that I’ve only burned 200 calories. It's kind of a bummer when you realize how much work you have to do to burn calories, and if you're just doing these short little spurts of aggressive exercise, then you're rarely going to hit your 2,000 calories.
However, with the slow burn of gardening, you can burn off about 300 calories an hour, doing things like weeding, trimming, and raking. You'll build muscle tone and strength, and you’ll be out in the garden for a long time, which in turn, is going to make you happier.
Gardening Is Directly Connected to Exercise
When I was in China, I started to see how food was connected to physical exercise for the people I was with. There's this very strong connection between moving our bodies physically and then getting to eat. For example, a gatherer has to take a long walk to find berries before she can take them back and eat them.
It's just so natural and a big part of our human experience to connect physical movement with eating. I think there's a connection inside of our brains that longs for that. When we spend so much time indoors, disconnected from the way our food grows, our whole human selves think, “Something is wrong here.”
We know somewhere deep down inside of who we are that there's got to be some kind of movement in our bodies before we've earned that bite. This is very similar to working for an employer. You show up and do the job, then you get the paycheck. There is a back-and-forth energy. You give something and then you get something. It's weird if someone just gives you a check you didn't work for, right?
I think the same thing is going on in our brains with our food. Even though I am by no means a homesteader, I have a very strong connection in my brain with stepping outside to tend the garden and then coming back in to eat the food.
Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Makes You Feel Accomplished
When I started gardening I always wondered, “Why does gardening make me feel so good?”
I was kind of wondering how gardening compared to having a pet and wasn’t sure if I needed to have a pet and a garden. Turns out, I needed both.
I read an article that said one of the reasons having a pet makes people happy is because they spend so much time nurturing that pet and then they get to watch that pet thrive. You see the results of what you do. The article actually compared that to gardening. It’s the same thing where you nurture those plants, you water them, you prune them, and then you get to see them grow into food that you can eat. It gives you the feeling of “I did something that matters.”
Gardening Gives You a Reason to Get Up in the Morning
Our brain longs for a reason to get up in the morning. Your garden gives you a reason to step outside in the morning. You have to go take care of your plants. They need you.
That has been a huge part of my growth over the last ten years and what has kept me coming back to the garden. It’s also what's pushed me into my profession of setting up kitchen gardens for clients and starting my businesses. It’s that feeling of accomplishment and of pride.
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Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Cures Boredom
Our ancestors were never bored because they were always desperate to gather food in order to stay alive.
Boredom is probably one of the worst foods that you can feed a depressed mind. You know that feeling when your mind wakes up and it feels like there's nothing exciting ahead of you that day, that there's nothing to look forward to or to go check out? That's one of the worst feelings for a brain that's struggling, and the garden is the opposite of that.
There are ornamental landscapes with things like boxwoods, hedges, bushes, and trees. Those definitely have their place in the garden world, but one of the reasons why I dedicated my work to kitchen gardens is because of their dynamic nature.
All the foods that we eat on an annual basis that are planted by seed and grown in the kitchen garden begin and finish their lifecycle in less than 90 days. Some will finish their life cycle in less than 45 days. These plants are literally changing overnight, and that is not an exaggeration. For example, if you were to have a boxwood bush in your yard, you know it’s not going to change much over the course of ten months. The plants in your vegetable garden are going to be changing every single minute of every single day, and that to me is one of the great cures for boredom.
Have you ever heard about the idea of Blue Zones?
It’s the study of lessons for living longer from people who've lived the longest. Cultures where people seem to live a lot longer than they do in other parts of the world share one characteristic: they garden! Another shared characteristic that I thought was so interesting is that they can readily articulate the reason they are getting up in the morning. People in these cultures have purpose-imbued lives that give them clear roles or responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their one hundreds.
The study says, “Most centenarians from the Okinawan communities grow or once grew a garden. It's a source of daily physical activity that exercises the body with a wide range of motion and helps reduce stress. It's also a near constant source of fresh vegetables.”
Gardening Is a Great Cure for Boredom
When you read about the characteristics of these people who have lived a long time, you notice that there is this circle of things that are all interconnected. They eat mostly plant-based meals, they wake up with purpose, they spend lots of time outdoors, and they garden. You can see how all those things work together.
I teach an online course called Kitchen Garden Academy, and we have a community there where we share our wins and losses. One student shared, “This is the only way I've been able to survive the pandemic. I was so depressed and was having such a hard time. Now, I love waking up in the morning and going out to check on my garden. I literally spend so much time out there to watch what's happening, and it's been the best therapy I could have signed up for.”
The garden was that restorative balm for me when I was first home with my four kids. I was still working by contract in the area of philanthropy, but for the most part, my day was filled with diapers, tantrums, nursing, and cooking. There were days when a big part of my brain was super bored. Of course, I loved nurturing my children, and I wouldn't take that time back for anything in the world, but there were certainly pieces of me that were spinning in a circle. I was always trying to find something interesting to focus on, and the garden ended up really being that thing for me. I was at home all day and couldn't leave, so the garden ended up being my escape. It truly was the cure for my boredom.
Kitchen Garden Academy is Like College for Your Garden
KGA is an 8-module online course where you learn everything about setting up, designing, planting, and enjoying your kitchen garden from Nicole Burke.
The Garden Is Good for Mental Health Because It's Meditative
Have you ever been told you should meditate or pray or get quiet with your thoughts? I grew up in the church, and I was always taught to pray for 30 minutes every morning. My mind is like a squirrel brain, and I am just going in all kinds of different directions from the minute my eyes open. I always felt frustrated with myself that I could never sit still or let my thoughts be still.
Later in life, I was introduced to the idea of meditation, and then the guilt for having a busy brain really made itself known.
Gardening Helps You Meditate
Meditation is kind of like cleaning your brain. It's basically like taking a minute to observe your thoughts and what's going on inside of your head, to be able look at it from an outsider's perspective. I've always had trouble doing that, especially when I’m just sitting still, but I found that the garden actually allows me to pray, meditate, and clear my head.
What I've found is that I actually need to be doing a mindless activity in order to calm my head down. For my mom, it’s folding laundry. For me, it's gardening.
Let's say I'm working on thinning a row of radishes. I'm just going one by one, and it's pretty mindless. I don’t need a college degree to do this activity—I don’t even need to understand the complexities of the radish—but all of a sudden, that busy part of my brain calms down because it's distracted by the radishes. Then, I can go to that deeper part of my brain and have clear thoughts. Some of my best thoughts and ideas, business ideas included, have come when I am in that meditative state working in the garden.
Sometimes all a depressed or struggling mind needs is a moment of calm, and I believe that can happen when you’re outside working in the garden.
“Caring for your garden can be a great form of mindfulness meditation by connecting with the earth, and with the practice of gardening. You can cultivate a healthy mind and feel calm and connected. Simply planting a seed with intention or touching soil can be transformative so go ahead and get a little dirty.”
So no more excuses for not being able to pray or meditate, right?
Simply planting a seed with intention or touching soil can be transformative, so go ahead and get a little dirty.”
Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Brings Healing of a Different Kind
During the first year of business for me, a lovely man named Andrew hired me to do a consultation for him and ordered a beautiful stone garden that's actually in my book. It features three gardens in a circle that we created in honor of his three daughters. It turned out that Andrew was right in the middle of a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and he ended up passing away about a year and a half after I got to build the garden for him.
During that time as he struggled through his diagnosis and his treatment, I would often arrive at the garden and see him coming out to water it, tend it, and pull from it. He texted me often, especially at the beginning of his diagnosis, and said that he saw the garden as part of his therapy and his healing. He also saw it as a lasting gift he would give his beautiful wife Shana.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
I've never seen that be so true as when I've gotten to work with clients who are struggling with pain and loss, and I think it's a beautiful way to work through a hard time.
“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace”
Gardening Is Good for Mental Health Because It Brings Us Together
One of the worst feelings to have in your mind is to feel like you're alone. At the beginning of human civilization, the only way that humans stayed alive was by staying together. It was impossible to be out on your own and make it. You needed to be with a tribe. The tribe protected you.
Part of the tripe would stay up and watch overnight while you had to sleep. One member of the tribe could go get food while you stayed back with the babies. Humans stayed alive by sticking together, yet these days, so many of us spend more time alone than what's good for our heads. The garden is a great place to come back together.
First, it'll help you connect with the sources of your food, the soil providers, the growers, and the farmers, but it also connects you with other people in your community. Every time I'm out in my garden, my neighbors come by and talk to me and ask me what I'm growing, and it starts up so many great conversations. You're also going to harvest so much that you'll get to share with others, which makes you feel good that you have something that you can contribute and share with other people.
There is an amazing study that said that the benefits of gardening on happiness are similar across all the racial boundaries, and between urban and suburban areas. It was this really rare experience where they saw that gardening actually impacted everybody in a similar way. Whether you were low income or high income, had received higher education or not, the joy and the happiness that you had was the same.
I think this points back to our origins as humans. When we have our hands in the dirt, we feel home.
The researchers in this study also found that the level of emotional well being or happiness reported while gardening was similar to what people got when they were working out, and that is the only activity out of the 15 activities studied for which women and people with low incomes actually got higher emotional well being than men and medium- and high-income participants.
Gardening can connect us across racial boundaries, across economic boundaries, and across our city's boundaries. I can't tell you how many times I drove into places I never would have gone when I was sourcing materials in Houston for my clients. Some of the best growers, the best soil providers were in some of the harder spots of Houston, and by buying from them and connecting with them, I was supporting their hard work and also finding this basic connection that we already had but I had never discovered before.
Gardening connects you with people. It's this perfect moment where you look at each other and you get to share a really delicious bite or the joy of watching this vine take off up the trellis, and it's so powerful.
Gardening is good for your head. Do it for your head, more than for your stomach. Your stomach is still going to get to enjoy it, and the bites will be so delicious. But listen, your thoughts determine how you feel, and that is what we have all got to take care of.
“Consider money spent in the garden like money spent on gym equipment, a club membership or a music lesson, or simply consider it as paying for a doctor's visit. The saying is a little lame, but it doesn't mean it is not true. Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes. It would take quite a few therapy sessions to equal the cost of a kitchen garden, but you will at least get to eat your results.”
-Kitchen Garden Revival
It would take quite a few therapy sessions to equal the cost of a kitchen garden, but you will at least get to eat your results.
Gardening Makes You Happy
Listen, when I try to get you to start a garden, I'm really trying to get you to be more happy. I think that the future of our society and the future of us as humans depends on us learning how to be happy in the simplest ways. Gardening is very simple. It is the thing that can give us a simple pleasure and the happiness that we're longing for.
And that, my friends, is why gardening is for your head, not just your stomach.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- Spending Just 20 Minutes in a Park Makes You Happier
- Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature
- The exercise effect
- Green therapy: How gardening is helping to fight depression
- How to be mindful while gardening
- Grief Gardening
- Research shows gardening boosts our mood as much as exercise
- Is gardening associated with greater happiness of urban residents?
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