What did you grow last year that you shared with others? You probably won’t have to think very long, because sharing carries an emotional impact that makes the experience memorable. Even when it is repeated over and over, as you distribute your excess fresh cucumbers to friends and neighbors, giving from the garden makes you feel happy.
This is something to keep in mind this year more than ever, as many of us look to our gardens to help pull us out of pandemic-induced emotional funk. Indulging in hope as only gardeners can do, we turn to our gardens to restore our physical and mental health. But if you also plan now for sharing what you grow, the extra rewards, which include feeling like a better human being, make a good gardening year even better.
The Psychological Benefits of Garden Sharing
A robust body of literature supports the fact that gardening improves overall health, and restoring mental health through contact with nature may be a key factor. In a recent Australian study, older gardeners reported significant psychological benefits, regardless of the size or type of garden.
Now let’s add what psychologists call the “sharing effect,” in which emotional experiences gain meaning when they are shared. Sharing is the social norm among gardeners, whether we are sharing advice, seeds, plants or produce. During the pandemic, I may have shared even more than usual. Especially in the first year, sharing seedlings and salad greens with gardening friends was an emotional lifeline. Last summer, taking a little box of heirloom tomatoes to a neighbor made my day.
The Benefits of Group Gardening
If you really want to pull yourself up from deep psycho-muck, try participating in a group gardening effort in which goals and tasks are shared with others. From neighborhood beautification projects to food pantry gardens, finding a volunteer job where you get to garden with others is the fast track to horticultural healing.
Perhaps you have an allotment or community garden space, or an opportunity to start a community garden? Or you could sign up to help weed the herb beds at your local botanic garden. These special settings may give rise to just what you need to see and hear – laughter, smiling faces, the sharing of stories and dreams, accompanied by the sensory pleasures of the garden.
A recent study from Singapore looked at the psychological benefits of community gardening, and found that community gardeners scored higher than home gardeners, and much higher than non-gardeners, on well-being, resilience and optimism. Similarly, allotment gardeners in the UK report enhanced self-esteem,
mood, and vigor.
Sharing What You Grow
Let’s say you have a little time and space at home to grow extra produce to donate to your local food bank. In many communities this is so easy! In Dayton, Ohio, for example, Access to Excess collects produce from home gardeners at public parks, then gives it away at free weekly markets held at libraries and other sites.
When growing to share, it’s important to choose in-demand crops rather than obscure veggies. According to the Iowa Food Bank Association, the most donatable crops (in alphabetical order) are familiar faces: broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, melons, onions, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash, and zucchini. Choose a crop that naturally grows well for you, and grow a little extra to share. Anticipating sharing carries the same hopeful energy as planning a vacation, so your sharing crop will bring you extra inspiration every step of the way.
Then there are the natural sharing circles that evolve among gardeners. My friend, Kelly, is nicknamed “the Germinator” because of her magic touch with seedlings. She grows plenty to share, so I always save room for some of her unusual peppers, tomatoes and salad greens. In return, last year I took her a big pot of fragrant ‘Evening Scentsation’ petunias I’d grown from seed, and we were both doubly happy, from giving and receiving. The garden trading goes on all summer with a handful of neighbors, from a bowl of raspberries here to a bucket of apples there. This year I grew lots of spaghetti squash, while one neighbor was overrun with butternuts, and another with pie pumpkins. By trading around, we have about equalized our supplies.