The Garden Of Youth
Grow Something. You'll Live Longer.
By Ewa Futkowska
I’ve been blessed with having known two of my great grandmothers. My grandmother’s mom, Frania, lived to the ripe age of 98. My grandfather’s mom, Stasia, left us at 94. Both women lived through the Russian revolution, 2 world wars, the great depression, and communism, (not to mention raising 11 children between them). My fondest memories of my great-grandmothers are set in gardens; All those sunny afternoons spent picking apples off the tree, eating berries off the bush, and tending to the vegetables.
For Frania and Stasia, the Garden was not just a place where things grow. It was a sanctuary. Through all their life’s trials and tribulations, these women found peace in a connection to the earth and their ability to feed their family with food they grew and raised with their own two hands. It was thanks to those hands, that even at the height of communist Poland when grocery shelves were bare and people were left to fend for themselves, that we still feasted like kings and queens. As an adult, and a student of Holistic Nutrition, I can’t help but wonder if the longevity of the women in my family and their tendencies for digging around in the dirt have something in common.
The term “Blue Zone” was made famous by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer, and author who struck out on a quest in 2000 to find the lifestyle secrets to longevity. In his bestselling book, “The Blue Zones,” Buettner travels to places like Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and Icaria (Greece). What do these places have in common? The highest number of centennials in the world. These are places where people not only live long but thriving, happy and healthy lives. Can you guess what else they have in common? Yup… gardening. Centenarians from most of the Blue Zones grow a home garden. Today, we're going to teach you how you can do the same, and in doing so, extend and improve your quality of life. First, let's put this into context.
From Garden To Grocery
In Canada, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where grocery stores are stocked so full that 30% of our food supply ends up in landfills, it’s a constant challenge to eat half as healthy as my great-grandmothers did. In his book The End of Food, author Thomas Pawlick tells the tragic story of the modern tomato. Once a delicious, juicy and nutritious kitchen staple, has been reduced to tough and tasteless “red tennis balls”. 100 grams of today’s tomato contain 30.7% less Vitamin A and 16.9 percent less Vitamin C than its 1963 counterpart. It also has 61.5 percent less calcium, 11.1 percent less niacin, 10 percent less phosphorus, 9 percent less potassium, 7.97 percent less niacin, and 10 percent less iron. (1)
Sadly, this tragic tale of the tomato is just the tip of the grocery iceberg. The North American potato, for example, has lost 100 percent of its vitamin A, 57 percent of its vitamin C and iron, 28 percent of its calcium, 50 percent of its riboflavin and 18 percent thiamine. (2) Broccoli, back in 1950, had 130 mg of calcium. Today, it yields only 48 mg. The list goes on and on. In 2004, a team from the University of Texas (UT) published a famous study on the subject in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. Their finding showed “reliable declines” over the past half-century in almost every nutritional category - from the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, to riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C (3)
The ever-growing pool of data paints a frightening and irrefutable picture; fewer and fewer nutrients are making it into our food. So, what’s taking their place? The answer is a mixed bag of chemical additives, pollutants, preservatives, pesticides, hormones, and GMO’s. Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes their Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list; a buyer's guide to the most toxic-loaded fruits and vegetables. This year, EWG's analysis of tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 70 percent of samples of 48 types of conventional produce were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. USDA researchers found a total of 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of produce samples they analyzed. (4) Anyone up for a salad with a side of allergens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, immuno-suppressants, and toxins?
By this point, I know what you may be thinking: “Yes our food sucks. But… if we work really really hard to read all the labels, buy local and organic, spend our weekends at farmers markets, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), spend a third of our salary at health food stores, and keep ourselves up to date on the latest sustainable farming practices, while keeping one eye open to what the folks at Monsanto are up to (oh… and remember to manage our stress, exercise, sleep well and meditate daily), we too can live to see past 90.”
It shouldn’t have to be this complicated. Eating real food doesn’t have to feel like a quest for the holy grail. There is a simple solution to eating and feeling great, and that is; buy/find some soil, sow some seeds, and go grow something! Bring things back to basics. Take pleasure in knowing EXACTLY where our food comes from and what’s in it. Take pride in creating something nourishing, nutritious, and delicious!
For years I’ve been saying “someday I’ll get into gardening”. Someday… when I have a backyard. Someday... when I have more time. Someday... when I know what I’m doing. Excuses, excuses. The truth is that anyone, anywhere can plant a garden.
Bring Back The Garden
“Someday… when I have house with a backyard”
Whether you own your own home or live in an apartment with limited natural light, you have a number of options to go grow something. Having access to your own backyard is obviously the most ideal scenario. With plenty of space available, you have the most options of what you can grow. Depending on the size of your yard, you may be able to plant some trees like apples, plums or pears. It’s even easier for veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Plan it right, and you’ll cut down your produce shopping to the bare minimum!
For us city dwellers, apartments and condos with outdoor space like balconies and decks offer plenty of good options as well. The key is to think creatively. Don’t just use the floor. Look at the walls, the railings, even the ceiling. Flower pots on the balcony can be sown with vegetables instead of flowers. Cement walls can be transformed into a vertical garden using shelves or hanging baskets and small containers. Depending on which way your balcony faces, access to sunlight may be an issue. Luckily for you, many plants don’t require that much sun. Leaves like lettuce, spinach, kale are fairly easy to grow even without direct sunlight. Broccoli does well too. If you do have some sunny areas, reserve those for things like cherry tomatoes and bell peppers.
No balcony? No problem!!! Don’t let the lack of outdoor space stop you. There are many herbs that do very well indoors. Find a windowsill that receives good light, ideally from the south or west and plant some seeds in pots or even mason jars. Basil and parsley, in particular, have a wonderful scent and are relatively easy to grow. Have a window in the kitchen? Hanging herbs by the sink is super convenient for access when cooking. Any sunny and bare walls in your flat just itching for some decor? Create an artistic and useful design with some reclaimed wood, mason jars and herbs! Live in a sunless basement, or just want to get outside more? Try joining a community garden (more info below).
“Someday… when I have more time”
How many sunny days have you wasted watching TV or staring at your computer? Be honest. We spend so much of our “down time” in sedentary ways, hiding behind the excuse of needed them to unwind and de-stress. Instead of gluing ourselves to a screen, (disconnecting from ourselves, other people, and our natural environment), we are much better off spending some of that time playing in the dirt.
Gardening involves so many of our critical functions, including strength, endurance, dexterity, learning, problem-solving, and sensory awareness, that its benefits are many. It has shown to improve self-esteem, elevate mood, alleviate stress, regulate the immune system, improve cognitive function, heart health, and reduce the risk of stroke. (5) (6) Many of these benefits spring from a combination of physical activity, awareness of natural surroundings, cognitive stimulation and the satisfaction of the work.
According to the New York Times, the newest discovered Blue Zone is in a region of Italy called Acciaroli. This is a place where 1 out of 60 citizens is over the age of 90, where 95 years old's test to have the brain health equivalent to a 50-year-old American, have circulation comparable to a teenager and report to have sex multiple times per week. (7) I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like gardening is time well spent!
“Someday… when I know what I’m doing”
It is a common misconception that becoming an organic gardener is some super complicated task. This could not be further from the truth. Organic growing is the simplest forms of farming, and the way it was done for thousands of years. It is modern, chemical / industrial farming practices which are the complicated ones. The fact is that ANY organically grown food in your garden will still have more nutrients (and probably taste better) than its industrially grown equivalent.
However, if you feel you need some instruction to get going, there are countless resources at your disposal to get you from beginner to gardening guru in no time. There are many books on the subject of organic gardening. The two “biggies” (and I mean that in terms of both importance and size) are The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (8), and The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic (9). The internet is flooded with helpful gardening websites and blogs. To get you started, I would check out The Old Farmers Almanac. If you happen to live in Vancouver or Toronto, there are some great resources on getting involved in a local community garden. Check out the City of Vancouver and Toronto Community Garden Network (TCGN).
Finally, remember; if at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Part of the fun of gardening is the experimentation. Getting to know your plants and learning what makes them happy. It’s about making that connection to the earth and letting your intuition guide you. Our grandparents and great grandparents didn’t follow any almanac. They did their time in the dirt and learned on the job.
Spring is in the air and there is no better time than now to get our hands a little dirty. No more excuses. I’m off to buy some seeds, find some dirt, and go grow something. I hope you will join me.
- Pawlick, Thoma, The End of Food: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Food Supply-And What You Can Do About It, 2006
- Picard, Andre, “Today’s Fruits, Vegetables Lack Yesterday’s Nutrition” The Globe and Mail, July 6, 2002, A1
- Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999 (2004). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15637215
- The 2017 Dirty Dozen: Strawberries, Spinach Top EWG's List of Pesticides in Produce (2017). Retreived from http://www.ewg.org/release/2017-dirty-dozen-strawberries-spinach-top-ewgs-list-pesticides-produce
- Agnes E. Van Den Berg Mariëtte H.G. Custers, Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress (2010). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105310365577
- Kansas State University (2009, February 17). "Gardening Gives Older Adults Benefits Like Hand Strength And Self Esteem", Science Daily (2013). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090203142517.htm
- "Rosemary and Time: Does This Italian Hamlet Have a Recipe for Long Life?" New York times (2016). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/world/what-in-the-world/rosemary-and-time-does-this-italian-hamlet-have-a-recipe-for-long-life.html
- Fern Marshall Bradley and Ellis, Barbara W., es. Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardener. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Books Inc., 2004
- Tanya L. K. Denckla. The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food. North Adams, MA: Storey. 2003.