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-by Dr. Marie Moeller, Orange City Area Health System Family Medicine

Gardening is seeing a surge in popularity since the Coronavirus pandemic began. Local retailers report seeds, plants and supplies flying off the shelves. Some online seed warehouses stopped taking new orders in April, needing time to catch up with unprecedented demand. Several of my friends, co-workers, and patients have reported plans for an expanded garden this summer.

The reasons for the uptick in plant-enthusiasm are likely as varied as the gardens (and gardeners) themselves. Some families may be trying to plant some edibles in order to stretch their food dollars. Perhaps it gives us a sense of ‘food security’. More likely, the ancient rhythm of planting, growing, and harvesting is welcome in a time when so many of our other routines have changed. Not to mention, gardening is a perfect activity for social connection while still social distancing. Flowers and beautiful landscapes can be admired while walking the dog. Compliments or questions can be hollered across the fence, staying 6 feet apart but still solving that tomato plant dilemma.

I suspect many of us simply have found more time on our hands. Those backyard projects that were long-delayed in lieu of our kid’s activities and other events are now calling to us.

Families with school-age kids were recently thrust into educating from home this spring. I would suggest gardening as a great learning opportunity to continue all summer. Lessons in math and science creep into a great outdoor PE class. Artistic design of flower beds and possibly even some light construction skills might be learned in the process. The produce could then be used for some additional cooking classes in the kitchen. These are the kind of life skills every kid can benefit from. And remember, making a few mistakes in the garden or kitchen is part of the learning and experimenting! No pressure to be perfect!

There are many well-documented health benefits of gardening. First of all, being active in the yard may burn as much as 300 calories in an hour. In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, one could gain muscle mass, bone strength, and balance while gardening. Plus, the healthy vegetables and fruits grown can help us eat our recommended “5 a day”; packed with vitamins, fiber and other goodness. Kids that tend to be picky eaters might branch out if they’ve been involved in the choosing and tending vegetable plants.

Many studies show a mental health boost to those who spend time in nature. While gardening alone won’t replace the need for regular medical care for your physical and emotional health, ‘green time’ can certainly complement your efforts.

Ready to try a few garden projects for the first time?

A few square feet in a raised bed is a great place to begin. Kid-friendly choices to grow from seeds might include radishes, because these can be planted early in the spring, and are ready in only 20-30 days. Kids might find raw radishes rather strongly flavored, but you can slice and sauté them to get a nice sweet, nutty flavor. Carrots are also a big hit with kids. Our thick Iowa soil is not great for growing carrots. Try a short, rounded variety in well-tilled soil, or plant the seeds in a large pot. They harvest easily out of the potting soil. Basil also grows easily in pots. The leaves can be harvested for pesto. Leaf lettuce is much easier than trying to grow head lettuce. You can snap off a few leaves to eat and the plant will regrow more. You could also tuck a few of these seeds into a large container or planter that might also have some flowers.

In my opinion, no Midwest backyard should go without a tomato plant (or ten) in the summer. There is nothing as delicious as a tomato that has sun-ripened on your own property. Some varieties can even be planted in a pot on a small deck. My other ultimate favorite is strawberries, if you have space for them to spread out a little. They are easy to grow, in fact you’ll find you soon have extra strawberry plants to share.

Lastly a two dollar pack of Zinnia seeds, or a few started plants, will bring a lot of joy, and hopefully some butterflies, to your yard. Especially given these uncertain times, I think we can all agree, that the world needs more flowers.

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