six great reasons to start gardening

My favorite seed catalog came in today’s mail.

What’s new for 2010: organic Floriani red flint corn, green meat radish, Bolivian rainbow pepper, purple pac choy, ruby streaks mustard.

This is why I started gardening – I was awed by the incredible diversity of life I could sustain on my little corner of earth.

There were other reasons too. After my urban upbringing, I longed for the pastoral and bucolic ideal of self sufficiency and thriftiness. And certainly there were the political reasons: getting off the corporate food trough while promoting biological diversity and personal health.

But what really pushed me past reading and into action was a full-color catalog that arrived one Winter’s day. I saw purple carrots, speckled lettuces, striped snappy string beans, and a bright orange tomato that turned out to be an eggplant! If your vegetable education came largely from mainstream supermarkets as mine once did, you’ll understand my shock. Who knew there were purple potatoes, or that we could grow Thomas Jefferson’s beans or the Anasazi’s corn?

These days I’m a passionate gardener and my garden supports over 100 species. Here’s why you should tend a garden, even if it’s just a couple of plants:

1. Get outdoors. Being outside can help many health conditions. The sunshine lightens most folks’ moods and helps produce immune-building vitamin D. Researchers find that people living near green spaces have much lower rates of diseases including asthma, depression, heart disease, migraines, and even urinary-tract infections.

2. Eat better. As a naturopath I always recommend that people eat the rainbow — and gardening is one great way to do it. Vegetables begin losing nutritional value as soon as the plant is plucked and produce from your own garden travels the shortest distance between place and plate. Also, many soils around the country have some well known nutrient deficiency—in western Oregon it’s selenium—which you can address easily in your home garden. Feed your soil, feed your plants, feed yourself.

3. Love those vegetables. Gardening is a great way to convert knowledge about the health benefits of veggies into the action of eating them. Researchers consistently find that garden-based education in schools makes children more willing to try, like and eat a diversity of vegetables. The same trick works with picky adults, too…

4. Grow your own medicine. That lovely lavender you’re already growing can improve digestion and fight depression. Thyme makes a great ground cover and fights off lung infections. Garlic, onions and their relatives support the immune system and the heart. Even weedy dandelion is medicine, helping the liver and the kidneys. And so much of this is so easy to grow!

5. Be more community-oriented. Scientists have found that spending time outdoors changes people for the better. Read here about how gardening transformed the English town of Todmorden and its inhabitants, building food security, ecological sustainability and community spirit.

6. Pure joy. Part of a healthy life is making sure there’s joy in your life, every day. And that is one of the best reasons out there for gardening. For me, that’s about the wonder of nature’s colors and textures, and the sheer awe of actively and literally keeping history alive. And it’s a wonderful gift to share with your partner or kids.

So as the year’s darkest days settle in, take time by the real or virtual fire to go through the words and pictures of the seed catalogs and feed your dreams of summer. Here is a short list to get you started.

Seed Savers Exchange has done phenomenal work for decades to preserve garden biodiversity.
Fedco Seeds, a Maine cooperative, offers great starter packets at fantastic prices.
Horizon Herbs offers one of the largest selections of medicinal plant seeds.
Native Seeds/SEARCH has a focus on traditional Southwestern crops including a huge variety of beans, corn and hot peppers.
Seeds of Change was one of the first glossy proponents of growing heirloom seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo., boasts a catalog of 1400 varieties of vegetable and flower seeds.
Heirloom Seeds in Pennsylvania.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Happy garden planning!