The health benefits of gardening

The love for gardening spans generations. Just about anyone can dig, plant, and pull up weeds, and the rewards of your efforts sprout and blossom before your eyes at harvest time. Gardening's benefits extend beyond baskets of veggies or flowers nestled in a vase. Gardening enriches your body, your diet, and your spirit.

Working in the garden provides you with an outdoors fitness alternative. Rather than schlepping to the gym and plodding on the treadmill, you might push a lawnmower under sunny skies. Instead of lifting weights, you dig into the soil while listening to a bird's song.

Gardening's bone-building benefits are predictable in the same way we know weight training can help build bones. The related tasks require your body to shift and move from position to position – engaging many muscle groups and challenging your joint flexibility and strength. During a gardening session, a safe and healthy gardener would alternate between lifting, stretching, walking, kneeling, climbing, raking, weeding, and digging.

Pass an hour tending to your general gardening tasks – turning the soil, planting, hoeing – and you're likely to burn about 250 calories. Get down and dirty, dredging, digging, and weeding, and you'll shed a good 350 calories. That's more than you'd lose in an hour of brisk fitness walking, and you may get a bundle of carrots or some fresh tomatoes in exchange for your effort.

Thanks to healthy harvests from your garden, your diet may become more nutritious. People who have their hands in the growth process of their food tend to eat more vegetables, fruits, and fresh herbs. When you watch tomatoes mature from small green buds to full blush-red fruits, you're more likely to slice them up into a salad or stew them into a soup.

A happier, calmer state of mind may be another benefit you take away from gardening. An actual clinical profession exists, called horticultural therapy, in which people in places like rehabilitation programs, nursing homes, and hospitals engage in gardening tasks as part of their treatment plan. Maybe it's the sunshine that boosts a gardener's mood. Maybe digging in the soil restores our connection to our senses and to the natural world. Maybe being part of creating something, something beneficial or beautiful, leads to feelings of contentment. Maybe the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was on to something when he wrote that the "Earth laughs in flowers."

In addition to these, if you have a family, introducing your children to gardening will get them moving and exercising, setting them up for a good health routine when they get older.

Gardening safety tips

Got a green thumb and a sore back? Your tomato vines may climb higher, but your knees may suffer when you climb that ladder.

A productive garden grows with proper sunlight, irrigation, and the strenuous effort of a dedicated gardener. And a gardener can stay safe and healthy by following these good gardening guidelines:

Warm up. Treat gardening like a workout and warm up first. Stroll through your garden doing gentle stretches or take a walk around the neighbourhood. Gardening can challenge your joints, so choose a few stretches to loosen and warm your knees, elbows, wrists, and shoulders.

Be nice to your knees. To get closer to the earth, gardeners often find themselves on their knees. Busy gardeners may be benched by bursitis, a painful inflammation of the joints. Reduce the strain to your knees and to your back by working with only one knee on the ground at a time. Your back should be straight as you kneel, and kneepads provide additional cushion on rough or rocky terrain. Change your position if it becomes uncomfortable. Don't forget that using a wheelbarrow for transporting equipment and soil can save your back from heavy lifting and still be a form of exercise.

Take turns. Weed or dig for too long, and the repetition can cause strain. Alternate your gardening tasks to avoid repetitive strain injuries. Mix it up: pull weeds for 5 minutes, and then follow it up with a task that's a bit gentler on your hands, like raking. Switch again to digging, and then back to raking. This way, you don't overstrain any one part of your body, and you avoid the obsessive marathon sessions that can result when you focus too much on one task. You'll never get rid of all of that bindweed in one afternoon! Take breaks between tasks to rest or do some light stretches. Sit in the shade for a while and sip some water.

Handle with care. As a gardener, you use a lot of tools, but your hands are among your most precious. Shield them from harm with sturdy, well-fitted gardening gloves. Sure, you'll feel a visceral pleasure when you yank up that main, gnarled root of some nasty weed, but you may also dredge up bits of broken glass or shards of old metal along with it. Bare hands risk cuts, scrapes, blisters, as well as exposure to chemicals, pests, and potential allergens or irritants. Even with gloves, your hands will need a thorough washing-up once you've finished your tasks. Also, some chemicals used in the garden can be harsh on your hands or, even worse, can be very dangerous if inhaled or accidentally consumed (be extra vigilant when children are around). In terms of children, also keep in mind that bulbs and seeds can be choking hazards, and some plant varieties can be toxic if eaten.

No tooling around. Tools should make a gardener's life easier, not more painful or dangerous. Gardening tools come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of sharpness, so always use them with care and caution. Choose the right tool for the job, and read and follow all the instructions included with the tool before using it. With stand-up tools – rakes, hoes, or shovels, for instance – select one that allows you to keep your back straight as you work. If a task calls for a hand tool, maintain a straight line between your wrist and hand. A bent wrist equals a weak grip, is less efficient, and puts you at greater risk of injury. For electrical tools, make sure the power switch is "off" before you plug them in, and never use them in wet conditions. Some tools can be rather loud, so keeping a pair of earplugs handy would be a very good idea to save your ears from any short-term or even permanent damage.

Safely coexist with nature. When you work outdoors on your garden, strike a balance between yourself and the elements. Are you prone to allergies? Wear a protective face mask or nix your gardening plans on days with a high pollen count. The sun's light provides you some vitamin D, but shield yourself from overexposure. Work during early morning or later in the afternoon (before 11 am or after 4 pm) to avoid peak sunlight. Wear sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher), sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and light and protective clothing. And remember to drink plenty of fluids, especially on warmer days. Proper garden clothing should also provide some defence against bug bites. Protect yourself from diseases caused by mosquitoes and ticks by wearing insect repellent containing DEET.

9 healthy herbs for your garden

A German proverb tells that a garden is the poor man's apothecary. While your garden can't replace your local pharmacy for everything, you can create a garden full of delicious and healthful herbs. Turns out many of the herbs with the most flavour also contain a good dose of antioxidants and other essential vitamins and nutrients. Let's take a look at some of the tastiest and most beneficial plants.

Basil: Vibrant, fragrant basil blossoms with white flowers and soft, pointed leaves. Those soft leaves can be ground, dried, or powdered to be used as spice, but it is with the freshest leaves that one can harvest the most nutritional benefits. Basil is a great source of the antioxidant vitamin A, which helps to protect cells from damage due to free radicals. It also provides iron, calcium, vitamin C, and magnesium, a vital component to healthy blood flow. Basil can burgeon with a bit of attention, plenty of room to grow, good sun exposure, and frequent watering.

Chamomile: Often brewed as a tea, chamomile can help to reduce the cramping symptoms of menstruation, gas, stress, and other digestive upsets. Chamomile prefers sandy soil and lots of sunshine.

Cilantro: Cilantro is definitely an acquired taste. A fixture in many of the world's cuisines, the herb goes by several names, including coriander and dhania. The plant can be eaten from root to tip, so some people sprinkle the leaves into salsas or curries and others use the seeds to add a warm, citrus flavour to foods. It has been used as a medicine for centuries in the Middle East and research is underway to find out its potential as a regulator of blood sugar and cholesterol levels and as an antibacterial agent. Short-lived and fussy, cilantro needs sunlight but flourishes in cool temperatures, and sometimes it needs a bit of mulch to keep the soil cool. It aids in digestion and helps to cleanse heavy metals and other toxic agents from the body.

Mint: Mint grows in many varieties and the leaves and oils of the plant find their way into many foods, teas, gums, and – obviously – mints. The menthol derived from mint oil has long been added to medicines to treat sore throats, congestion, itching, and minor aches and pains. The oil of peppermint also helps soothe stomach upset by calming muscle spasms, like the ones that come with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Peppermint added to foods and beverages may offer some of the herb's benefits, and it will definitely add a cool, minty flavour. Mint is rich in vitamin A. This herb thrives in moist, shady spots, but they can grow in full sunlight. They're tenacious growers, so keep them in a pot so they don't overpower other plants.

Oregano: Get a whiff of oregano, and you may be transported to pizzeria memories. This Mediterranean spice tastes warm and slightly bitter, and complements tomato sauces and vegetables. Its benefits go beyond flavour and zest. Gram for gram, oregano also supplies a hefty serving of antioxidants, fibre, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin K, a vitamin that contributes to healthy, functioning blood. To harvest oregano's health benefits, give plants plenty of sun, and water sparingly.

Parsley: You should never overlook that sprig of parsley on your dinner plate. Plain and simple old parsley provides folic acid, an important B vitamin that supports heart health, men's fertility, and helps to prevent some kinds of cancer. Parsley is also rich in vitamins A, C, and K, also it makes a great in-a-pinch breath freshener. Its flavour can liven up salads, soups, and sauces, and it is a key ingredient in the popular Middle Eastern dish, tabbouleh. Parsley grows well indoors, so keep it in a warm, sunny spot, tucked into compost-enriched soil.

Sage: Savoury sage turns out to be aptly named, as research reveals it can help to boost brain power. Its oil helped to enhanced research participants' instant recall, and compounds in its roots may help to inhibit the growth of brain plaques that form in Alzheimer's disease. Grow this peppery herb to add zest to meats, cheeses, and soups. It's an evergreen, but it loves full sunlight and needs some periodic pruning to keep it healthy.

Rosemary: Rosemary holds antioxidant power in its pungent, minty, pine-flavoured leaves. An active ingredient in the herb may even protect your brain from stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and other age-related degenerative conditions. To grow rosemary, start with a cutting from an already grown plant. Rosemary needs drainage and lots of sunlight. Once you have a healthy plant, snip the leaves into small pieces to release the flavour and aroma. Rosemary often complements starchy foods like potatoes and breads, and it inserts a savoury note to ice creams or puddings. Add it to food or make your own tea by grinding dried-up leaves and steeping them in hot water.

Thyme: Sprinkle thyme onto your food and you add a sharp, pungent flavour that's powerful without being overpowering. Thyme thrives in full sunlight and dry soil. Like its Mediterranean neighbour, oregano, it grows low to the ground. And like oregano, thyme provides your meals with an antioxidant kick. Thyme may also support healthy brain function by boosting omega-3 fatty acids in brain cells. Thyme works flavour wonders in soups, stews, vegetables, and lots of slow-cooked dishes.