For as long as I can remember, my dad has cultivated a garden. I am more impressed with the garden — and with his generosity through it — every year. I learned, from an early age, how gardening can improve health and our relationship with food, and how it can nourish neighborhood and family communities with its abundance.
As a kid, I experienced that abundance in juicy sweet summertime tomatoes handed to me to eat from the vine. And again in the pride of position as my dad’s helper, painting hot pink nail polish over the pruned ends of rose bush branches, warding off unwanted insects from burrowing their way in during dormancy. I didn’t know it, but gardening was teaching me the value of working with my hands, learning from nature, and appreciating the fruits of patience and process.
As a grad student, I saw from a different perspective how gardening brought people together and fostered healthy living. Coming from California, I was particularly impressed with one of my friends who innovatively cared for her garden through the Midwest winter. As we squatted down to see her arugula one day, her son put his hand on my knee, picked arugula right off the bush, looked at me, and said, “‘picy!” With a laugh, I was reminded of how I loved participating in helping things grow, and how I wanted the same for my family someday.
Years later, gardening is a way that my family commits to our home and community by both what our garden yields and what it teaches us. Through gardening, we invest in the little bit of land we have, learn to practice curiosity and patience, and cooperate with creation. Before we can plant for summer and winter seasons, we have to make sure the soil is ready. Soil that has good nutrients and good worms also holds the promise of good veggies. We then plant, water, and wait. And as things grow or don’t grow, we experience the joy of seeing new life that we’ve participated in or the disappointment of things not happening as we’d hoped. So, it becomes an education in nature, and in life.
Gardening contributes to a healthier lifestyle physically, emotionally, and socially. It is physical work and produces food that our bodies crave and that tastes delicious. (It’s an added plus that my favorite yoga instructor on YouTube has a Yoga for Gardeners practice!) When I am feeling anxious, spending time outside and getting my hands dirty has been nothing short of therapeutic.
Having a garden also naturally gets our family to eat healthier because we want to use what we are growing. It makes me google search things like “what to do with extra cilantro” and “best pesto recipe.”
Taking notes from my dad, I have learned the joy of sharing food that we grow with others. Whether it’s bringing a bag of cucumbers to work, inviting someone over for a meal where you enjoy a salad of homegrown arugula, or presenting your neighbor with a bunch of mint, cilantro, or parsley, homegrown gifts never fail to bring joy and foster connection to those around us.
While gardening has become a family hobby, it is also replete with benefits for our larger communities. As a director of a high school service program, I regularly take students to a large food bank where we sort through the produce that has been deemed undesirable or unwanted by the masses. Much of the first hour is spent walking around taking vegetables out of students’ trash piles — we have to teach students that one blemish or an unpolished surface does not mean a vegetable is bad. It just means it was grown in dirt and not polished with wax.
Volunteering at the food bank gives our students a glimpse of how much good food we waste as a community and as individuals. When they learn that nearly 20 percent of children and about eight percent of the senior population in the U.S. — millions of people — are food insecure, they think twice about throwing away a salad or sandwich that they just weren’t hungry for.
If you’ve never had a garden but are intrigued, give it a try. Make a trip to a local nursery, find a community garden, or have a chat with your neighbor with the green thumb neighbor. Worst-case scenario: the plants don’t make it, even after your effort and lots of mentally willing them to grow. (This is my relationship with eggplant every year.) The best case scenario is the promise of flavorful produce, fresh herbs for any meal, healthy living, awe at watching things grow, awareness of those who go without, and the ability to connect with others through something you’ve cultivated with your own two hands.