Mind and Body

Sowing the seeds of health

The art of healing and gardening, where mindfulness, good nutrition and exercise connect

Image courtesy of Barrington Farm School Facebook page

The cotyledon, the first leaf, climbs toward light from a seed that is germinating.

By Dr. Carol Green
Posted 2/11/19
The art and science of growing your own vegetables and flowers has many healthy values to teach us all, connecting us to the intricacies of the natural world, providing stress relief, a way to practice mindfulness as well as the benefits of patience and persistence.
Imagine if the simple art of saving seeds from peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and strawberries and then growing them was part of the educational curriculum of all elementary school classrooms? How important are the skills of patience and persistence in farming important to success? Could the Barrington Farm School integrate a program on building coldframes as part of its curriculum? What are the alternatives to spreading toxic pesticides and chemicals on state lawns in order to promote better health outcomes?
As the Bob Dylan lyric goes, Time is a jet plane/It moves too fast. As spring approaches, I often think about the way we tell time in the digital world we live in. As someone who has worked on stressful deadlines for much of my life, I no longer wear a watch. The things that always center me are gardening and cooking, where I can become immersed in the slow process of creation, letting my mind wander where it may go, where smells and tactile sensations and the natural sounds outside become my playlist.
The most accurate clock I know is one that is outside the human construct, the return of ospreys to Rhode Island waters, based upon the apparent increasing light in the sky, which, for nearly three decades, since I have been paying attention, occurs around the last week in March. The osprey pairs build their nests, hatch their young, feed on the abundant fish, and then return south around the last week in August.
Many humans remain unaware of things that occur outside the news cycle, such as the return of the osprey.

PROVIDENCE – The wonder of a seed is hard to talk about without drowning in the use of superlatives or cliches. But a seed is a wonder: with just a little water, the embryo swells and bursts the sturdy exterior, jutting out roots on one end and “cotyledons” on the other, the first leaves that climb toward light.

Like a seedling stretching upward, Nan Quinlan, a graduate of the URI Master Gardener program, practices yoga in the garden. She sometimes teaches yoga and stress reduction techniques in that setting, too. Quinlan believes that the combination of meditation and gardening packs twice the punch of healing.

“You’ve got your arms stretched out, you’re listening, you’re taking it all in,” Quinlan explains, and I can’t help but see her class in yoga’s lunging Warrior II pose, arms toward the sun, bathed in the scent of lilac and wet grass. “We’ve always known that being in nature is healthy. We just didn’t know how to label it. Now that the label is available to us, people are into it.”

She’s talking about the surge of interest in gardening as a healing modality for individuals and communities, an innovation that some Rhode Island schools, nonprofits and wellness programs are seizing.

“It’s probably one of the top 10 healthiest exercises for weight loss – all that bending, pushing, pulling, twisting,” Quinlan posits. Indeed, gardening at all ages has been found to reduce body mass index (BMI), and kids who garden are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, two benefits among many of the Hasbro Children’s Hospital Rainbow Garden.

Mindfulness
Even more intriguing than weight loss is gardening’s impact on the mind. Like the mindfulness based stress reduction, or MBSR technique, used by mental health professionals for its many benefits to patients, gardening can lead to reductions in anxiety and depression, enhanced perceptions of well-being, even an improved ability to focus. Studies have indicated that it can decrease biomarkers in stress such as salivary cortisol.

I spoke to Priscilla Szneke, a nurse and epidemiologist who teaches MBSR at the Brown Center for Mindfulness and Seventh Element, about the connection between mindfulness and gardening. “They are wonderfully closely-bound activities,” she said. “In fact, any activity done in nature brings you into the present moment.”

I ask her why care of a flowerbed, or a walk in the woods, could have such power, but not a stroll through a shopping mall.

“Partly, it’s awe.”

The outdoors can be sensory extravagance: the crunch of brown leaves underfoot, the coolness of loam slipped through fingers, the scent of dew hit by sun. These experiences can intrigue and bring pleasure, while also allowing our minds to wander and reflect. Environmental psychologists call this phenomenon “soft fascination.”

Soft fascination does not demand our full focus – unlike, say, a sporting game, which brings pleasure but asks for rapt attention. It paves the way for mindful awareness.

“In the Western way of understanding things, we tend to bring in the heady component more than the practice,” says Szneke of the extensive research behind MBSR. “But the practice of mindfulness is the most important part.”

Due to its physicality, gardening often forces us into practice, demanding muscles while letting minds float into soft fascination.

From the ground up
The Barrington Farm School, a nonprofit that recently purchased a working farm to preserve it, is developing a curriculum for students to learn sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship while immersed in the wonders of a working farm in their suburban backyard. The curriculum includes bee-keeping, composting and seed-saving, activities intended to enhance kids’ understandings about their role in the natural world.

“We’re not just a farm that sits in the middle of suburbia,” says Tim Faulkner, one of the Barrington Farm School’s volunteer founders. “We’re part of an interior wetland corridor, which is part of a larger corridor, which connects to Narragansett Bay. This area has tremendous biodiversity: hawks, eagles, deer, coyotes.” The goal of the program, Faulkner continued, “is about letting your mind open up to all of this.”

The sight of a hawk circling, the discovery of a rabbit burrow, or the sowing of heirloom seeds can change a child’s attitude toward the natural world for life. It may inspire environmental activism, a career in the sciences, or teach that a few minutes outdoors are calming and therapeutic.

Healing the asphalt jungle
But a predicament that haunts public health is how to bring such therapy into cities, where vast stretches of concrete create urban heat islands, where lack of tree cover can contribute to increased asthma rates, and where many city-dwellers do not have cars to escape for a walk in the woods.

Fortunately, nonprofits such as the South Side Community Land Trust and Groundwork Rhode Island are dedicated to bringing gardens and green spaces to cities, especially underserved areas. In addition to the aforementioned physical and mental health benefits, community gardens are associated with an increased sense of neighborhood cohesion and, in some studies, reductions in neighborhood crime.

Keeping the health of children in mind, the family medicine clinic where I work is partnering with an urban elementary school, Pawtucket’s Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary School, to enhance their school gardening program. School gardens can address “nature deficit disorder,” a non-diagnostic term for the physical and cognitive costs of the disconnection between humans and nature. At Baldwin, students will start by planting seeds from the URI Free Seed program in biodegradable milk cartons, then plant them in the ground after the last frost.

The teachers, physicians and community members in our partnership hope that the garden will fascinate kids through biology and nutrition lessons, and also provide a place for calm contemplation during the school day.

Naturalist John Muir once said: “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” We can’t all wander among the redwoods of California to find life’s meaning, but maybe a small plot of dirt in Rhode Island can help people of all ages clear the mind and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Suburban farms, school gardens, garden yoga classes – all can be healing for communities and individuals, turning us inward and outward simultaneously, providing a way for our minds to rest, wander, and explore the world without judgment.

In Sznecke’s words, “We don’t need to learn how to be mindful. We need to remember how to be mindful.” What better first steps toward remembering than to press a seed into earth, watch, and wait?

Carol Green, MD, works for Brown Department of Family Medicine. She is also an intern with the URI Master Gardener program.

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