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The Surprising Benefits of Gardening in Retirement

Growing your own food can cut expenses, provide exercise and perhaps even improve mental health.

Each autumn, the fruits of the harvest fill the shelves of local groceries and farmers markets, a colorful reminder of the many nutritional benefits of fresh produce. But growing produce offers equally sustaining, though perhaps less visible, benefits.

Beyond reduced grocery expenses, gardening offers many positive effects financially. A garden may be a good way to improve property value, for example, says David Ellis, director of communications for the American Horticultural Society and editor of its magazine, The American Gardener. But most people garden because they enjoy it, he says. “They grow vegetables and improve their own nutrition,” says Ellis, “and they grow flowers, which they give away and spread joy.”

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A form of light exercise, gardening can be a great way to stay active. The exercise involved varies, depending on the task, and seniors should be careful not to overexert themselves, Ellis says.

Spending time outdoors has been linked with improved mental health. Recent studies have shown that the quantity of nearby green space buffers life stresses across ages. Gardening may lower cortisol levels in your brain, and in turn reduce stress levels, according to a study in the Journal of Health Psychology.

Gardening may also lower the risk of dementia by as much as 36%, according to a study conducted in 2010 in Australia. For this reason, horticultural therapy is a growing area proving helpful for seniors with dementia, says Ellis. With this form of active therapy, people are led through gardening tasks and see the results, often making use of fragrant herbs that stimulate memory, he says. “It has become a great tool,” says Ellis.

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Longtime gardeners agree that gardening makes great mental exercise. “So much of it is observation and decision making,” says Jay Leshinsky, age 73, a retired gardening educator in Middlebury, Vt. Whether researching a new insect or a new disease, there’s often a lot of problem solving involved, he says. “It keeps me thinking and using many different skills,” he says.

There’s also an avenue for creativity in designing a garden. “Some people focus on efficiency; some people focus on form. Even in a small area with short lines of sight, different colors and textures at different times of the season create a kind of ever-changing palette,” Leshinsky says.

At the start of each growing season, Leshinsky and his wife, Susanne, sit down and talk about how to plan their space. “You give each other feedback, and in that sense, it can be a solitary or collaborative practice whether in design, planning or harvest,” he says.

Join a Community Garden

Even if you don’t have a garden at your home, a community garden lets you experience all the benefits of gardening with the added dimension of having people around. At community gardens across the U.S., seniors serve as teachers and mentors, but they are also there to learn. The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, for example, assists seniors in planting and maintaining gardens of herbs, plants and flowers at a community garden.

Gardening in your community often connects you with like-minded people, says Kirsten Conrad, the organization’s agricultural natural resources extension agent. And you can learn new skills. “It’s both a social and technical support system,” she says.

Gardening is generally a very communal activity, says Ellis, allowing you to bond with your community and with neighbors. “And if you are an experienced gardener, sharing your expertise can also be a great way to support your community,” he says.At the end of the day, gardening simply grounds you, says Leshinsky. Besides gardening’s physical and mental health benefits, Leshinsky says, “for me, it always opens up this world of mystery that just can’t be explained scientifically—the miracles of seeds and what they do.”

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