A beehive, clucking chickens, and a veggie patch. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? In the last decade home-grown food has enjoyed a popular resurgence, often inspired by a desire for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
From a simple herb garden or a few fruit trees, to a full-blown feed-your-family vegetable patch – kitchen gardens are popping up everywhere. Of course growing your own food is nothing new. I’m sure many of us remember our parents or grandparents producing giant crops of silverbeet, oversized zucchini and bags of lemons.
Nothing can compare to the taste of sun-warmed tomatoes picked straight from the plant, or tiny red strawberries bursting with flavour.
A kitchen garden doesn’t have to be complicated or labour intensive. Nor does it require a lot of space. The most successful kitchen gardens are the ones where you embark on a project that is achievable for you. If you are limited by space or finance, a few pots of herbs or potted fruit trees may be more practical.
Growing your own food has many clear advantages, but it also has some unexpected benefits. For a start, kitchen gardening is a great way for people to connect to nature.
Contact with the natural world is an underutilised and valuable health benefit that is available to everyone, and it’s so important to our overall wellbeing. Many people feel calmer or more relaxed around plants – in fact studies have shown that gardening significantly reduces our levels of stress hormones. Given that stress is known to worsen pre-existing health conditions, spending time in the natural environment is certainly worthwhile.
Consider this: mental illness and cardiovascular disease are two of the greatest causes of ill health worldwide. But studies have shown that contact with nature has a positive effect on these illnesses, as well as on blood pressure, cholesterol, sense of well-being and stress reduction.
A look around the urban landscape shows how modern lifestyles have evolved to the point where many of us are insulated from the natural environment: apartment living, concrete, car travel along congested motorways… Yet the negative effect this is having on our health could be reduced by simply spending time outdoors working with plants.
Turns out, gardening is both an effective and affordable way of improving your health and happiness.
Kitchen gardens can improve mental health
Research has shown that gardening is linked to improved mental health. It is unsurprising, then, that kitchen gardens are finding their way into aged care homes, prisons, schools and disability development programs.
Gardening (horticultural therapy) is used to engage people in practical activities that produce positive mental health results. Kitchen gardening, in particular, is a great way to provide a sense of belonging, shared responsibility and social fulfilment. With a deft turn of the spade and a sprinkling of water, a communal vegetable garden provides community members with increased food choices and improved quality of life.
Home-grown produce provides improved nutrition too
It’s no mystery why home-grown produce is more flavoursome than store bought. When we grow our own food we pick it when it’s ripe and eat it soon after – with minimal storage time and maximal time for nutrients to develop. Commercial farming, on the other hand, focusses on high yield and long shelf life, which arguably comes at the expense of taste and nutrition.
Flavour aside, another advantage to home grown produce is that you decide whether or not you use (and therefore ingest) pesticides, and which ones you use. So you know exactly what you are eating, and the impact its growth has had on the environment.
What’s more, it turns out that kitchen gardeners eat more fruit and veggies than non-gardeners, so you’re more likely to achieve your healthy eating goals too!
Workout in the garden
We all know how beneficial exercise is to our health, but it may surprise you to know just how good a workout gardening is.
Gardening is considered a moderate intensity exercise. Just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of moderately intense exercise has been shown to lower the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, colon cancer, and premature death.
Get children involved in the garden
Gardening teaches children to get their hands dirty and have fun. With muddy hands they observe, learn and engage with nature and the environment. Eating food plucked straight from the garden encourages positive attitudes towards healthy eating and exercise – important lessons in a world of increasing obesity levels and sedentary lifestyles.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is a wonderful example of how food, nutrition and gardening can be incorporated into school curriculum to build knowledge and confidence in relation to cooking and gardening.
For more information on creating your own sustainable garden, or to see one in action visit Sustainable Living Australia. If you don’t have the time or space to grow your own vegetables, why not join your local community garden. Everything you need to know about creating your own edible garden can be found at the Gardening Australia website.
For more information on The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation go to www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au.
Edendale Farm in Melbourne’s north is a great example of a community farm. Edendale regularly hosts free workshops to hone your gardening skills.
Rachel is a scientist, a writer and parent to two small girls. She has travelled extensively and is interested in women's health, early childhood, gardening and reading vast amounts of YA fiction.