As we enter a new year, it’s a great time to consider a few ways of adding greater value to our lives. Engaging the world of plants will improve our sense of well-being, happiness and health, whether that means growing our own food in containers or a garden, nurturing indoor plants or simply walking in a green space.
In terms of growing the healthiest food, the latest research has found that not all varieties are created equal. Certain varieties of vegetables have far more nutritional value and antioxidants than other varieties in the same food group. Eating nutritious foods is one of the best ways to stay healthy and maintain a better quality of life, so it’s important to know which varieties offer the most significant health benefits.
Plants promote good health in so many ways
Food gardening has skyrocketed in popularity, mainly because folks want more control over the food they eat. They want fruits and vegetables that are free of harmful pesticide residues, and they want to savour flavours that can be achieved only by harvesting fresh, naturally-ripened produce. It seems logical that today’s food gardeners should focus on the varieties with the best nutritional, vitamin and antioxidant qualities.
Leeks are great for flavouring many dishes, and the ‘Kilima’ leek has the highest nutritional value. This variety contains vitamin C, B-complex, potassium, magnesium, silica, iron and calcium. If you enjoy leeks, it makes sense to grow this variety.
Onions are also right up there for flavouring salads, soups and meats, and the variety ‘Candy’ is the most valuable because of its ability to fight bacteria and reduce blood pressure, harmful cholesterol and blood sugars.
Peppers, both sweet and hot, are healthful in many ways, but the hottie, ‘Mucho Nacho’, is high in vitamin C, phenolic acids, plant sterols, and it has lots of carotene. The sweet peppers, ‘Red Beauty’ and ‘Blushing Beauty’, are chock full of vitamin C, and, ounce for ounce when mature, have more vitamin C than oranges,
Tomatoes, the most popular garden fruit, contains cancer-fighting lycopene, a very strong antioxidant and free radical neutralizer, and ‘Health Kick’ has 50 per cent more lycopene than other standard varieties. Research has shown that men, who consumed a minimum of 10 servings of high lycopene-enriched tomatoes a week could reduce their risk of prostate cancer by 45 per cent. Very few foods contain lycopene — watermelon, apricots, pink grapefruit and guava have varying amounts.
Combine your favourite edibles to make a beautiful container
Leafy vegetables, particularly the darker green varieties like spinach and kale, contain high levels of lutein and zeathanthin, two carotenoids helpful in protecting eyes, arteries and lungs from those nasty free radicals. Advanced Nutraceutical Research Inc. has found that folks consuming lutein every day have a 43 per cent less chance of developing macular degeneration. Two to five servings a day of leafy vegetables will provide adequate amounts.
We often hear of the value of garlic, and garlic researcher Dr. Eric Bloch suggests that regular consumption of garlic lowers the incidence of stomach cancer and reduces the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Yu-Yan Yeh indicates that regular use of garlic results in lower cholesterol levels. Historically, garlic was used in treating infections because of its anti-microbial agent called allicin. In addition to flavouring so many dishes and keeping vampires away, it also inhibits many harmful bacteria.
All these plant foods simply need to be grown, harvested and enjoyed. Over winter, as you await the arrival of spring and a new opportunity to grow these wonderful foods, do a little research on the varieties that will provide you with the greatest health benefits.
Revive your spirits when you surround yourself in a canopy of green
Our gardens provide another opportunity for improving our lifestyles: exercise. The regular, natural movement of the body is one of the best prescriptions for good physical health, and the anaerobic nature of gardening is an exercise we can enjoy. The Royal College of Physicians in Britain has produced a list comparing various activities and the number of calories each burned over 30 minutes of exertion. Here is part of that list: 90 calories when walking, 162 when raking, 182 when weeding, 202 when digging, 243 when using a push mower, and 243 to 364 when shovelling. Clearly, our gardens can be our new gyms.
Green spaces also afford us the opportunity to engage with plants. Arizona State University has identified a name for a “connection to plants and nature”: biophilia. Creating this connection by bringing the outdoors inside is the latest trend in “interiorscapes.” Using water, living walls, larger indoor plants, and other natural elements boost people’s mood, productivity and health. After a long, arduous flight, arriving back at the Vancouver airport to the sound of water and loons and the natural look of weathered stumps is a relaxing and comforting welcome.
The importance of green spaces in urban areas is now recognized as critical to people’s mental health and sense of well-being. As little as five minutes in a park can have a positive impact. Japanese researchers found that spending just 20 minutes walking in a natural area enhances mood, vitality and creativity. They call it shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. They discovered that trees in forested areas give out aromatic phytoncides, and “forest bathers” inhale these compounds. They also learned that a forest walk, two days in a row, stimulated the human immune system in a significant way, as well as the production of a type of white blood cell. Apparently, this effect remains 23 per cent higher after a month of forest exposure.
It’s hard to beat the sound of rushing water
According to the World Health Organization’s report, Urban Green Spaces and Health, increasing children’s exposure to green spaces influenced their cognitive ability in a positive way, improved their social inclusiveness and behaviour and lowered the risk of ADHD. There’s also a growing understanding that the quality of “streetscapes” enhances social cohesion.
WHO also compared the proximity of green spaces and the corresponding health benefits. Ideally, there should be 1.5 hectares of green space within a five to 10-minute walk from any home; a 20-hectare park within a 2km distance; a 100-hectare park within 5km, and a 500-hectare green space within 70 km. Scientists have determined that one-hectare of green space per 1000 people in the surrounding area is the optimal situation.
This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the benefits of connecting to plants and green spaces. To be happier and healthier in the new year, grow, nurture and eat healthy, fresh foods. Enjoy the plants inside your home, the ones growing on your patio or in your garden, and visit the parks, gardens and forests around you.