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Gardening's good for your health. Minnesota experts weigh in

Larry Ryan admires flowers at the Duluth Rose Garden
Larry Ryan admires flowers at the Duluth Rose Garden. The Ryans visit the garden several times a year.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Gardening season’s in full swing, and if you’ve felt the surge of endorphins with your hands in the dirt — or the slight backaches — you’re not alone.

Barbara Sheedy wears sunglasses and a hat as she smiles for a selfie in her car.
Barbara Sheedy, St. Louis County Master Gardener
Contributed / Barbara Sheedy

The popular hobby is beneficial for our overall health, experts say, and there are some safety measures to consider.

Gardening is exertion, said St. Louis County Extension Master Gardener Barbara Sheedy.

Digging, raking and mowing are calorie-intensive acts that restore dexterity and strength.

“It’s just as if you were exercising, running, hiking,” said Sheedy, who has been gardening since college, a master gardener for 20 years, and an instructor of ergonomic gardening through the St. Louis County Extension.

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Gardening “is nature’s way of allowing you to relax and focus on the good things,” she said.

Dolores McCreedy, 85, walks up a path between garden beds full of hostas. “I’m not quite 5-foot, but they come up to half my waist, and some of them are so little that they’re not bigger than a spool of thread,” she said. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Dolores McCreedy, 85, walks up a path between garden beds full of hostas. “I’m not quite 5-foot, but they come up to half my waist, and some of them are so little that they’re not bigger than a spool of thread,” she said.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Gardening exposes us to sunlight, which increases vitamin D and lowers blood pressure. And, simply looking at a garden helps your health, according to the National Library of Medicine .

In a Japanese study, viewing plants altered EEG recordings to show reduced blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension as well as reduced stress, sadness, anger and fear.

Gardening is also a universally available, inexpensive means to increase social interaction and access to a healthy diet.

Dr. Jean Larson smiles with her French bulldog, with nature in the background.
Dr. Jean Larson

For Jean Larson, moving through nature aided her life trajectory.

“I have a learning disability. … I did struggle in school, a lot of anxiety around it. Having animals and forested areas, water, really did help me,” she said.

Dr. Jean Larson is now a professor of nature-based therapeutics at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and professor at the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.

In nature, Larson works with clients on the autism spectrum or with bipolar disorder on learning goals or emotional self-regulation. She aids stroke patients with range of motion and eye-hand coordination through seed-planting, for instance.

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“All the things that might be done on a slab or pulley system or peg board, we’re doing in a garden instead,” she explained.

Three elementary age children search for worms in a chunk of grass-laden dirt.
Davis Wright, from left, Acorn Daniels and Alex Hansen, Washburn Elementary fourth grade students, look for worms in the roots of weeds they pulled from the school garden, so they can put them in the raised beds.
Bob King / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

Gardening affects four domains of health: physical, emotional, cognitive and psycho-social. Through its different functions, we’re able to activate and improve self-esteem, self-regulation, social-emotional learning, confidence-building and communication skills.

Someone with a developmental disability can learn how to integrate into a more traditional classroom setting while learning about life-death cycles outside, Larson said.

Additionally, the brain’s frontal lobe, in charge of executive functioning, is like a battery that drains during the modern day. When we’re outdoors, the frontal lobe gets to deactivate slightly, and our calm-but-alert alpha waves peak, according to National Geographic.

It’s not a one-stop solution in nature-based therapy. Healing can be hindered if there’s trauma related to nature or cultural context to consider.

Generally, though, Larson believes in the healing powers of nature.

“I know intuitively this is an important thing. Learning about it academically, sharing it with others — I love my work.”

With the physicality and good-feels of gardening come opportunities for injury.

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Sheedy has strained her back lifting too much. At another point, she tripped over a tomato cage, bashing her knee into a boulder. “I still see the scars,” she said.

There’s also the risk of twists, burns and other aches and pains, but there are solutions.

Knowing your limits, pacing yourself and using the proper instruments. There are a slew of tools, made to fit different heights and hand sizes, and with comfortable cushions and springs made to decrease tension on the body.

Consider smaller tools, such as rakes and hoes with handles for walking. Mini-shovels — they almost look like kid shovels — are so much better for me than a large tool, Sheedy said.

She shared more tips:

  • Use comfortable grips, soft handle, appropriate sizes and curve shape design for less strain. Keep tools clean and sharpened for easier use.
  • Opt for small, lightweight, self-propelled wheelbarrows and carts.
  • Leaf bags: stand alone, disposable, collapsible containers, use of a tarp in a central collection area, or a compost bin. Remember to carry light loads.
  • Consider using kneelers, stools or padded mats that allow you to sit next to the garden. Avoid stepping on tools and slipping in wet areas.
  • Make gardening easy by use of landscape fabric and mulch to avoid constant weeding.
  • Take great care with any chemicals, such as fertilizers and pest control.
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Katie Ringer of Amity Creek Landscaping deadheads campanulas in a Park Point garden.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Prepare your body

  • Stretch before you begin to help prevent injuries.
  • Wear comfortable shoes or boots, wear gloves to keep hands clean and loose fitting clothing, appropriate for the daily temperature.
  • Wide-brim hats, long-sleeved shirts, sunscreen, sunglasses, sun umbrellas or work in the shade.
  • Stay hydrated, carry a water bottle. 
  • Don't over-strain your bones and muscles. Take breaks, enjoy your garden, know your limits on how much to carry, exposure to the elements and how long you spend gardening each day.
  • Continuing your education through classes, experts, books, garden clubs, websites or St. Louis County Master Gardeners. 
  • Let someone know where you are and have a cellphone ready, in case of an accident.
  • Lift with your knees and take care not to lift too much.
MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
"I’m not the first trans person you know, but I'm probably the first out trans person you know," said Aleana “Ana” Kruger of the "The Transgenda" podcast.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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