Gardening – just for the health of it


There are studies that show gardening contributes to longevity. And there’s even a thing called horticultural therapy. Photo: Getty Images.

If the farmer’s market gets you excited, maybe take things a step further and consider doing a little gardening of your own. It’s a fun (most of the time), healthful activity with lots of benefits besides eating the food you grow.

So said Katie Dunker, statewide Colorado master gardener coordinator for Colorado State University. Dunker, who lives in Castle Rock, supports the master gardener programs statewide and works with staff who in turn work with volunteers all over the state.

She may view gardening from a statewide perspective, but noted that all the extension offices are local.

Her background is not in horticulture, she said. Actually, it’s in higher education administration and public health. But she’s a gardener herself and when she moved to Colorado five years ago and ran a faculty-staff wellness program at the University of Denver, gardening was one of the things she incorporated into the program. When she heard about the job she’s in now, she thought it “was a perfect fit. I saw the connection right away.”

Gardening is good for you

Gardening is an activity that has few drawbacks.

“You grow your own food, get to be outside, get some exercise. It’s a perfect intersection between being a doable physical activity, spending time outdoors, has potential beneficial nutritional aspects, as well as possibly a social experience, if you do it with others.”

She admitted “it can be frustrating in Colorado, with our erratic weather, hailstorms and such, but it can be amazing to watch a garden recover from a weather event. Our climate and microclimates can be daunting, but you can overcome them. Gardening can be a very successful activity if you really pour yourself into it.”

Gardening rarely results in monetary gain, she said, but it’s satisfying and rewarding in and of itself.

It’s an activity you can do at any age or ability level, she added.

“As you age, you can still do it – it may look different, with raised beds, or containers or just a smaller garden, but it’s still possible. And kids find it fascinating, too.

“No matter how old you are, who isn’t impressed when a seed sprouts?”

kids gardening with their parent.
Gardening is an activity you can do at any age or ability level. Source: Getty Images.

Physically, the benefits come from being active – bending, digging, weeding, just moving, varying by the type of gardening you are doing and how much garden you have, she said.

“It can take a lot of effort to cultivate, to prepare the soil, or you can do something much easier. Plant perennials or create a xeriscape, for example.  And there’s just a benefit of working with your hands. It feels good.”

Yes, you can hurt yourself gardening. Be physically prepared for the work, she advised, and make it easier on your body by using the proper tools. Wear garden gloves and always, always wear a hat and sunscreen, she said.

“My guess is that the biggest injury is sunburn,” she added.

Dunker hasn’t studied the mental health benefits, but said “there is a popularized term right now, ‘forest bathing,’ this concept that green things heal us – that just being around plants means improved air quality, that our brains function better.”

For herself, she said, “gardening can create a sense of mindfulness and a peace that is difficult to find in our busy, fast-paced lives. Just strolling through the garden to see what’s happening there can be relaxing.”

She noted that “there are studies that show it contributes to longevity. And there’s even a thing called horticultural therapy.”

Gardening can be a year-round pursuit

“There’s definitely a high season – the growing season – when you’re outside and things are growing, but there’s a lot that can be done indoors as well,” she said.

Indoor gardening can include houseplants, microgreens, kitchen gardens, herbs and even some flowers, she said.

“And who doesn’t love a good seed catalog in January? There’s something beautiful about the anticipation of the growing season. And you can harvest well into the fall, depending on what you grow.”

There are even gadgets and tools to help extend the growing season, though purists prefer to wait until Memorial Day to plant anything, Dunker said.  “It’s a lot of work to protect those plants early and late. And the soil’s just not warm enough for them to really grow.”

A lot of Colorado gardening success depends on where you live – partly on your elevation. And microclimates are a factor.  Are you on the plains or in the mountains, for example? On the north or south side of a hill? In a valley?  Growers can pick varieties that mature quicker in shorter growing seasons.

She suggested gardeners contact their local extension office for suggestions, and to find out when the local first and last average frost dates are anticipated.

One of her co-workers likes to say, “In Colorado, it’s survival of the latest.”

Folks who live in Steamboat Springs can expect a much shorter growing season than, say, Grand Junction, which has one of the longest growing seasons in the state.

Gardening can be done anywhere

Live in an apartment? Condo, townhouse? Or just don’t have room for a garden at your home?

“Community gardens are a fantastic option,” she said. “It combines the social connectivity to your community with gardening. It has all the great benefits of gardening, but you do need to make a commitment. You have to keep your garden weed-free because it affects other gardeners.

“The community garden is not a new concept – it’s done all over the world. If you do it as a couple or a family, it can be a really beautiful thing.”

tomatoes from gardening.
Source: iStock.

How to learn more about gardening?

What if you’ve never gardened?  Master gardeners will be offering classes this spring, she said. Check with your local extension office. CSU also offers gardening classes online. Go to or check out CSU online. Cost is usually $40 to $60 per class.

Also check local gardening centers, rec centers, whoever offers classes, she advised.

Dunker’s final advice?

“Keep it simple. If you grow food, grow something you would really eat.  Consider what is realistic in your location. Try new things out. That’s part of the fun!”

And if it turns out gardening is not for you, she said, “there’s always the farmer’s market!”

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