Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Health Benefits of Getting Your Hands Dirty and Gardening

It’s no secret that gardening is one of Canada’s most popular hobbies — take a peek over some neighbours’ fences in the summer and you’re bound to see rows of carrots, lettuce and other homegrown goods. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that more than half of Canadian households grow produce or flowers for personal use. Home vegetable gardening doesn’t just put fresh veggies on our tables; the process can also have various physical and mental rewards.

Many outdoor enthusiasts and mental health experts believe that gardening has tangible psychological benefits — the work is quiet and meditative, and there’s a certain pleasure in getting one’s hands dirty. Plus, the feeling of being outside and working with natural elements can clear the mind and raise our spirits, while also providing some physical exercise.

“Exposure to nature and green things is very beneficial to people,” says Dr. Guy Pelletier, a clinical psychologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. “There’s pretty good documentation on how sunlight and nature can help with depression. People also sleep better when they’ve been out in nature and working in the sun, which is also important.”

And then there are the straightforward health benefits that come from simply eating more vegetables. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that adults eat seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables a day to get the micronutrients and fibre we all need for our bodies to thrive.

Growing vegetables in your own garden offers a convenience factor — the ease of access makes hitting those seven to 10 servings easier to achieve. “Growing your own garden fills out the eating experience in such a wonderful way, because you know the path of the vegetable,” says Rod Olson, who owns Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms, a Calgary-based company that turns clients’ yards into vegetable gardens and then sells the bounty at farmers’ markets and to restaurants.

Olson recognizes that growing conditions in Alberta can frustrate some gardeners, so he suggests that novice growers start with crops like kale, lettuce, spinach, radishes and zucchini to ensure success. Warmer weather crops like tomatoes and squash can suffer from the temperature fluctuations between day and nighttime and often require hoop housing or other cover to get them through Alberta’s climate. Sticking to things that you know will grow well can also boost your emotional well-being.

“When I talk to people who garden, there’s a satisfaction that comes from producing something and seeing your work come to fruition,” Pelletier says. “If you keep it relatively simple, there are real advantages there.”