Get Dirty, Get Healthy

When I have been working for hours on end planting, pruning, harvesting, and moving plants, my knees hurt, my lower back complains, I need a shower and I have dirt under my fingernails. This is healthy?

Yes! Few other activities are so rewarding for the time and effort. I learn new things every single time I grow something. I have learned to really look at what is growing in detail: the intricacies of leaf shape, the reason that tomatoes, deadly nightshade, potatoes and datura are in the same family. (Take a look at their flowers.) I have had the pleasure of collecting, nurturing and then waiting months or the spores of Japanese wood ferns to germinate and then finally growing into tiny but recognizable plants, I have watched a tiny sapling of a tulip tree gradually establish itself in the garden. I have also learned from my failures, such as the Japanese threadleaf maple that was planted in full sun with no respite from the summer sun and its resulting death; the time woodchucks ate all the young Amaranthus plants that I had grown from seed; and when aphids attacked very single one of my calendula when we were away.

I feel satisfaction from watching day lily seeds collected from my garden germinate indoors. Now I have tiny plants with big promise. It will be a long time before I get to see the flowers, which, I suppose, could make a gardener impatient, but gardeners become patient people. They have to. After all, what will the off-spring look like? Will there be a new day lily named after me? I can hope.

Gardening, for me, is constantly creative. The right placement of plants with the right colors and textures makes me feel truly artistic and fulfilled. Sometimes this happens by chance, but I still enjoy it. When the elderberries, the Annabelle hydrangea and the goose neck loosestrife bloom, we have a white garden. The lavender that grows around the rose garden is of particular joy to me because I grew those plants from seed a long time ago, and now they are huge. It doesn't matter to me if others notice all this but if they do I have a chance to make friends by sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm and often cuttings or divisions with them.

Gardeners tend to be friendly, enthusiastic, sharing people. I met the owner of a display garden last September in Oklahoma City who grew a tall plant that was unfamiliar to me. Its scientific name is Cassia alata, more commonly called candelabra plant. My knowledge of horticulture meant that this plant is related to the garden species of Cassia hebecarpa which grows by a front window of our home. We had a wonderful conversation regarding these plants, members of the pea or Fabaceae family. The gentleman broke off a piece of the plant for me to take home. I have since gotten the Cassia to root and also hope to grow it from seed. I have been researching this plant and am learning about both its history and its herbal uses. Although it will never grow to its full potential here in the northeast I have the pleasure of learning about a new plant and having the fond memory of having spent an afternoon in a beautiful garden in another state.

Now if all of the above doesn't convince you how wonderful gardening can be for a person's all-around good health, then consider the following. A harmless soil bacteria called Mycobacteria vaccae was injected into mice and it caused their serotonin levels to soar. (Serotonin is the substance that affects our moods; the bacteria stimulates the brain's limbic system.) Scientists believe this may mean that this soil bacterium is a natural mood enhancer. Now I understand why I truly feel absolutely wonderful when I have been outside playing in the dirt!

Forever Young Magazine January 2008