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The Earth Beneath My Feet

I remember juicy, plump cherry tomatoes that burst with flavor inside my mouth. I remember the crisp, cool crunch of fresh cucumbers straight from the vine. Growing up, late July was always my favorite time of the year because the long, bright days were spent outside, working alongside my grandfather as he tirelessly tended to the small patch of dirt we proudly called our garden. He cultivated not only a hardy stock of cucumbers and tomatoes annually, but also a strong love of gardening and nature in me. The Earth, it seemed, was his answer to everything. If I scraped my knees on rough concrete, he would gift me a tomato to heal the wound. If I wanted some quiet from the cries of my toddler brother, he took me outside to bask in the sun and connect with the ground.

Of course, like the shifting Earth beneath our feet, our lives change. We moved to a different house where he no longer lived with us. I grew up and became entrenched in my own little world of school, friends, and hobbies. However, every spring, without fail, my family still sprinkles seeds in the backyard to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. There is something comforting and reassuring about watching a garden come alive. After a morning of hoeing, weeding, and planting, I feel refreshed and relaxed, more ready than ever to write a final paper or study for an upcoming exam.

Why We Should Work with Dirt

These days everyone is urging everyone else to spend time outside — to get that vitamin D, or spend time away from screens, or truly “find yourself.” At the risk of sounding like a public service announcement, your doctor, or your overly concerned parent, I’d like to delineate the awesome benefits of gardening and spending some time outside.

Gardening has been shown to be a more effective stress reliever than indoor exercise. In a study done on a population of people ages 55-80, those who had an outdoor garden that they tended to everyday reported significantly lower levels of stress than those who attended indoor exercise classes. In another Dutch study, two groups of people were asked to perform the same stressful task. Afterwards, one group stayed inside to read, while another group worked on outdoor garden. The stress levels of both groups were measured in self-reports and in levels of cortisol (known as the “stress hormone”). The gardening group displayed a significant decrease in stress compared to the reading group, and while the gardening group experienced an increase in positive mood and self-esteem, the reading group experienced a decrease. Perhaps there is more than just spending time in the sun that causes these mood changes — it is the rewarding feeling of nurturing a living being and connecting with the Earth, while understanding the power and responsibility we have to look after something other than ourselves. Gardening has always made me feel smaller and yet more content with myself. There is the assurance that we have the ability to coax life from the dirt, yet there is also the realization that there are much larger forces at work beyond our microscopic spheres of influence.

Gardening is also good for physical health — the manual labor involved in shoveling, hoeing, and lifting can be an integral part of a daily exercise regimen. A Stockholm study found that in the 60+ age group, those who gardened regularly decreased their chances of heart attack and stroke by 30 percent.

In addition to physical health, gardening has such a tangible impact on treating depression and anxiety and improving mental health that therapists are actually prescribing horticulture therapy as treatment. According to horticultural therapist Mitchell Hewson, gardening “stimulates thought” and makes clients aware of external environment. In addition, clients reported a “renewed desire to live, decreased anxiety, and increased self-worth.” If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or you’re just feeling sad, gardening might be the unconventional yet effective escape.

How to Get Started

It seems intimidating to start a garden sometimes, especially as you’re staring at a plot of land overrun with errant weeds. It’s actually quite easy and very rewarding to get started, though often getting started is the toughest part!

Make a plan.

Planning is extremely important. Survey your space, make a list of the things you want to grow, then inventory your current tools. After a comprehensive list of seeds/sprouts, tools, and fertilizer, head to the store with a clear plan in mind. Spontaneous shopping can lead to frustration and another trip(s) later on!

Be patient.

Plants are living creatures, and they need time to grow. They may not talk back or display huge spurts of growth day-to-day, but they still need you to nurture and love them. Besides, not talking back (or at all) means they’re very good at keeping secrets when you do all the talking. .

If you live an apartment:

  1. Many, many apartments have potted plants, hanging herbs, garden boxes on window ledges and balconies, and even vertical garden walls. This link explores several creative, cute, and easy ways to begin gardening in an apartment.
  2. You can also rent a plot of land a local community garden! Community garden policy, size, and price may vary, but odds are there is one in your area. You are usually free to cultivate whatever you want. Community gardens also have the added bonus of socialization: You can get to know the others in your community and bond over your shared interest in gardening!

Originally published at https://www.wittedroots.com.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis