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Fitness and family health

May 16, 2019

How gardening can save money and improve your health

You don’t have to be an expert to reap physical, financial and community health benefits from your garden.

From mid-May until mid-October, I don’t go straight inside when I get home from work. Instead, I drop my purse and backpack at the door, pull on my gardening gloves and dig in.

As I water the flowerbeds, planters and hanging baskets, I wash away the stresses of the workday. As I breathe in the scent of rose, peony, heliotrope or pineapple sage, I feel my heartrate slow. And as I clip off spent flowers and pull a few weeds, the tension in my shoulders eases. After about half-an-hour of this, I’m grimy, sweaty and hungry – and way more relaxed.

Can gardening save you money?

Gardening can have financial benefits, too. If you have the space, homegrown raspberries, rhubarb and other produce can cost much less than store-bought. And as a bonus, one of the best things about growing your own fruits and veggies is their just-picked flavour. You also know exactly what chemicals have and haven’t been used on them.

Because my yard is small and boasts only about two inches of topsoil over solid clay, I do my vegetable gardening in containers. I’ve had some success with small vegetables like jalapeno peppers and cherry tomatoes (grown in hanging baskets where the gross bugs can’t get to them). But where I really save money is with herbs. I object to spending two or three dollars for a little plastic clamshell of chives or thyme when I only need a bit. Or buying a whole bunch of parsley or cilantro for the same price when I only need a few sprigs, and seeing it turn slimy in the fridge before I need it again. So I spend $3 or so per plant for mint, parsley, basil, rosemary, chives, dill and whatever else looks good at the nursery. I line the pots up along the edge of my porch where they get lots of sun. And I clip off what I need, as I need it, all summer long. If I had enough sunny windowsill space inside, I could save even more by bringing some in over the winter. My main challenge is resisting the urge to buy more than I will use, just because they look and smell so good.

In the few beds I’ve managed to blast out of the clay, I’ve saved over the long run by planting good-quality perennials. They cost more than annuals, but they die down and come back year after year. (Confession: I planted perennial Shasta daisies once and they did really well. But I pulled them up after just one season because they smelled so bad. Lesson: Be really sure about your perennials before you plant them.) Some annuals, like alyssum, forget-me-nots and coreopsis will self-seed and spread. Just let them go to seed near the end of the summer and leave the foliage undisturbed over the winter. I bought flats of alyssum every spring for years until I learned that trick. Also, if you don’t make your own compost, you may be able to get some for little or nothing from your local municipality. I put a bit at the root of everything I plant in the spring, spread it generously over all my beds and use what’s left to make compost tea to water my herbs. And collecting rainwater to use to water your garden can reduce your water bill. (Put the money you save into a tax-free savings account and you can grow your savings along with your garden.)

What if you don’t have the space for a garden?

One option if you have no space is a community garden. You can find community gardens on city-owned land such as vacant lots, parks or hydro fields. The land is divided into plots for you and your neighbours to grow your own produce and, in some cases, to grow it for food banks. You may pay an annual registration fee to help cover the cost of things like water and compost. You may also commit to pitch in to maintain paths and other common elements. In return, you get fresh produce and the chance to get to know your neighbours better and swap gardening tips and tricks.

Container gardening is another popular solution for small spaces like balconies and patios. But there are limitations:

  • You need to water containers faithfully every day (twice a day in heat waves).
  • Container plants are more sensitive to cold and heat than bedded plants, as the roots have less soil to insulate them. Wait until the chance of frost is past before planting in containers, or bring them indoors overnight.
  • You can’t grow anything really big (like watermelons or pumpkins) or in any great quantities.

How many calories does gardening burn?

Besides being good for your community, gardening is also good exercise. According to the Harvard Medical School, 30 minutes of weeding burns 139 calories in a 125-pound person and 205 in a 185-pound person. That’s about the same as doing moderate calisthenics. Using a power mower for half an hour burns 135 calories for the 125-pounder and 200 calories for the 185-pounder. The same time behind a push mower: 165 and 244 calories. That’s equal to what you’d burn in a half-hour of low-impact aerobics. (And push mowers use no gas or electricity.)

Of course, it isn’t just about the calories. Gardening can strengthen your core muscles, your legs and your arms. But it’s important to do it right.

Stretch first to get ready for gardening

It’s tempting to go straight from browsing gardening websites to spending an entire weekend up to your elbows in compost. Victoria Day is the traditional start of gardening season in my part of the country. Every year, I go from zero to 60 on that weekend, and I pay for it for days afterward. My back hurts, my quads hurt, my hamstrings hurt, my hands hurt. So try to resist the urge to dive in without preparing yourself. Before you start working, spend some time stretching. Better yet, start stretching and getting ready a week or two ahead. While you’re working, take a break now and then and do these gardening stretches. And stop when you feel discomfort – even if all your annuals aren’t in the ground yet.

Protect your back while gardening

Even planting just a few containers can involve heavy lifting, twisting and bending. Protect your back by lifting that giant bag of potting soil with your legs and hugging it as close as a long-lost friend. Or ask for help. Instead of bending over to fill pots and planters in place, invest in a potting bench or set up a folding table. That way, you can work standing up. Then carefully move the filled containers to their final locations. That one smart move has saved me a world of sore muscles.

Raised beds will also cut down on bending and stooping, but you still need to be careful. If you overdo it despite your best intentions, check whether your workplace benefits plan covers massage.

Other health and safety tips for gardeners:

  • Wear a hat and lots of sunscreen, and avoid gardening at high noon.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Protect yourself from rusty tools and microbes lurking in the soil by wearing gloves and making sure your tetanus shot is up to date.
  • Get up slowly, to avoid that dizzy feeling called syncope (SIN-ko-pee) that you may sometimes get from standing up too fast.

How much time does a garden take?

Having a garden is kind of like having a pet. You can’t just pick up and leave it for weeks or even days at a time. That’s unless you have neighbours who will mind it for you in your absence. (And with whom you can share your harvest.) With a first pet, it’s wise to start small – a goldfish rather than a Great Dane. It’s also a good idea to start small with your first garden. Maybe a couple of containers, a planter hung on a porch railing or a small bed. If you plant more garden than you can handle, you could wear yourself out trying to keep it up. Or you’ll let it go and be reminded of your folly every day until the snow blots it out.

A garden is definitely a time commitment. There’s that daily watering and tidying (and harvesting, once things start to ripen). You’ll need a solid weekend or two to prepare your beds or containers, fight the crowds at the nursery and get everything planted before night falls. (And before the skunks come out – true story.) You’ll also need a fall weekend to hill up your tender plants like roses and hydrangeas, lift summer bulbs and do other seasonal jobs. Cutting the grass is, happily, my husband’s department. But each weekend until the frost finds me outside for an hour or two of dandelion-digging, driveway-crack weeding and bug patrol.

The benefits I reap from my garden are worth every minute of the work I do in it. And as work goes, I’d much rather be outside doing it in the yard than inside doing it in the house.

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