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The Secret to a Long and Happy Life is in the Garden

What We Know About Longevity

Dan Buettner wanted to find the secret of longevity. He traveled the world over, meeting and interviewing the world’s centenarians (people over 100) to learn the secret from those who could speak from experience. But when he pressed them for an answer most of them could not really say. One of them said with a shrug, “We just forget to die.” Too busy living to worry about dying.

These centenarians never thought of retiring. For some of them it was literally never a thought that crossed their mind. They didn’t even have a word for retirement. They were still herding sheep, milking goats, or tending their gardens. They all ate lots of vegetables, and most of them grew their own.

In the U.S., we have a fascination with youth and a fear of aging. These feelings are are not shared in some other cultures. Of a village in Sardinia, Italy, Buettner says, “On tavern walls, instead of posters of bikinied women or fast cars, you’d see calendars featuring the ‘Centenarian of the month.'”

Centenarians Don’t Go to the Gym

Buettner says, “None of the 253 spry centenarians I’ve met went on a diet, joined a gym or took supplements.”

How is it that these people are still dancing when most people their age have returned to dust? Buettner put together a team to help him collect the data and facts as well as engage in personal visits so they could actually get to know these amazing people and translate what they learned into information that we can all use to keep us dancing right up to the moment the music stops.

Dan Buettner’s Recommendations for Longevity

After working on this project for seven years, Buettner boiled it down to the following recommendations:

1. Make exercise a part of your lifestyle rather than just doing exercise for its own sake.
2. Stop eating when you feel 80% full, because the feeling of fullness is delayed by 20 minutes.
3. Eat mainly plants.
4. Drink a little red wine daily — with moderation of course.
5. Have a goal in life — a reason to get up in the morning.
6. Slow down and have strategies for relieving stress.
7. Be part of a spiritual community.
8. Make your family members top priority.
9. Choose friends who encourage these positive values.

You can read the whole story in his book, The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

I am pleased to note that most, if not all, of these recommendations can be answered in the garden. We have healthy exercise, plenty of fresh vegetables, a reason to get up in the morning, and a place to forget stress for sure. Some things in the list might be answered indirectly – like growing red grapes to make wine, and having gatherings and family picnics in the garden.

Let’s take a closer look at the different recommendations and how you can fulfill them in your own garden:

Recommendation #1 – Exercise

Working in the garden is certainly exercise, but your choice of tools will make a big difference in how effective and enjoyable it is.

I have lately discovered the Meadow Creature broadfork. It’s an excellent tool for breaking up new ground and loosening the subsoil to make it retain more water. It’s perfect for exercise because you keep your back straight and use both arms and legs equally. You just step on the cross bar, sinking the tines into the ground, then lean back to cut through the soil. It loosens soil without turning it over. If the ground is very hard, keep it shallow on the first pass and then repeat until you get the tines all the way in — 12 to 16 inches, depending on which model you use. I feel such a sense of well-being after working with my broadfork that I wonder if I might be getting the grounding benefit called “earthing.” Even though I’m wearing shoes, my hands are on the metal handles and the tines are deep in the ground. Anybody out there have any ideas about that?

My broadfork obeys me perfectly, so it’s safe to use up close to plants, as long as I pay attention to what I’m doing. Not so with a rototiller, which I think has a mind of its own, and a cantankerous one at that. The broadfork is also quiet, undemanding, and maintenance free. Another favorite garden tool is the garden claw which also lets you keep your back straight while working. It has six tines in a square position at the bottom. You push down and twist. No more back-breaking work with these two tools.

Recommendation #2 – The 80% Rule — Stop Eating Before You Reach Full Capacity

Well, I’m afraid this one isn’t easier if you garden. It might actually be harder to stop eating, because your food all tastes so good. But then, you aren’t consuming empty calories, so I wouldn’t worry as much about this one. Just eat slowly, and stop before you’re full.

Recommendation #3 – Eat Mainly Plants

No problem! If you garden at home, there are plenty of fresh vegetables for the picking. And if you plan your garden well, you can keep the fresh harvest coming almost all year long in many areas.

Recommendation #4 – Drink a Little Red Wine

Most of us rely on the grocery store or another retailer to supply us with red wine. But if you’re an adventurous gardener, you could consider planting a grapevine along the edge of your garden. This would provide you fresh grapes to work with, and it might even provide some additional exercise if you crush the grapes traditionally – with your feet. However you get your red wine – always drink it in moderation.

Recommendation #5 – Have a Reason to Get Up in the Morning

There’s no place like the garden in the early morning. What an inspiring place to be! Avid gardeners are heavily invested in their gardens, and so they always have a reason to climb out of bed and go out to the garden to survey their progress, preen their plants, and plan for upcoming projects.

It’s true that a garden can become very unsightly and discouraging if bugs and weeds take over. So, always keep the size of your garden small enough to maintain it in good condition, and continue adding new seeds and plants so that you have constant, vigorous growth. Yes, let some of your plants go to seed for flowers and nectar for the good guys (pollinators and insect predators), but keep planting new things, too, so that the garden stays beautiful all season long.

Using Permaculture to Keep Garden Costs Down

Gardens can also be very expensive, especially if you opt to purchase soil, fertilizers, and pest sprays. One way to keep costs under control is to learn the principles of permaculture. Permaculture seeks to mimic nature and always tries to minimize external inputs (like store-bought soil). The word “permaculture” (combining “permanent” and “culture”) and the basic principles behind it have been around since the 1970s, but some of the concepts are quite ancient.

a-guild-of-lettuce-radishes-and-beets

A guild of lettuce, radishes, and beets

One of the ideas in permaculture is to create groupings of plants that aid and protect one another. These plant groupings are referred to as guilds. And emphasis is placed on using plants that attract pollinators and other “good guy” insect predators. The “three sisters” is a great example of a guild, invented by Native Americans. They planted corn, beans, and squash near each other. The corn stalks act as a trellis for the beans. The bean plants fix nitrogen in the soil. And the squash plant acts as a mulch, shading the ground and keeping the soil moist.

When you plant large groups of the same thing, you make it easy for the nibbling insects that eat in your garden. Instead of having to forage for food, they get to shop at the supermarket. If we take a cue from nature, and plant a variety of different plants together, we have a better chance to outsmart those pests.

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My vegetable guild of radishes, beets, and lettuce

I have not tried the “three sisters” yet, but I have learned that beets, radishes, and lettuce work well together. You do need to give a little extra attention to the beets, to make sure the other plants don’t overwhelm them. Here the radish has shaded the lettuce, and some bugs have eaten the radish leaves instead of eating the lettuce. This worked out great for me, since I wasn’t planning to eat the radish leaves anyway.

Limit the Use of Pesticides in Your Garden

One experiment I did was to stop spraying for insects because spraying kills the good guys, too. This summer, when I was watering and something jumped out of the foliage, it was often a small frog or toad rather than a grasshopper or cricket. You don’t eliminate all the pests, and believe it or not, you don’t want to. If all of the pests disappear, there won’t be any food left for the good guys, and they will disappear too. I must confess, though, that the cabbage caterpillar was just too much and I had to resort to using Dipel. I don’t mind so much when insects stop by for a snack, but when they move right in to stay and leave garbage behind, I just can’t help myself.

open-pollinated-grape-tomatoes

Open-pollinated grape tomatoes

This year I was excited to have an “open pollinated grape tomato” (that’s the only name I have) come up prolifically. I did nothing for them except grow them last year. This year I didn’t plant, water, fertilize, or spray for disease or bugs. I didn’t even pull weeds or keep the tomatoes picked. The plants came up through the weeds and grass, grew up over the top of the the weeds or climbed on anything available, without being tied. Other tomatoes had a hard time this year – it was too wet, then too dry, and the bugs were bad. But there was no problem at all for those little grape tomatoes. I could pick what I wanted, whenever I wanted, all summer long. And they kept right on growing until the first frost. They are bite-sized with superb flavor, perfect for salads and snacking. I would love to hear if anyone else has a favorite garden plant that takes care of itself like this. The picture here was taken in November, so the tomatoes had slowed down quite a bit. But you can see how they still held their own above the weeds and grass.

Recommendation #6 – Slow Down and De-Stress

Gardening is a great stress-reliever for gardeners of all ages. For many of us, the garden is a place we go to unwind and bond with nature. If you have a garden in your yard, you always have a place nearby to regroup and collect your thoughts when life gets difficult and stressful.

If you’re already feeling tranquil, just go out and smell the flowers. Want to punch somebody? Attack the weeds instead. This works better than a punching bag, you will love the results, and there are no regrets!

Walking barefoot on bare earth or grass also helps to reduce stress. We actually do run on electricity, and we benefit greatly from grounding. This is called “earthing.”

Recommendation #7 – Be Part of a Spiritual Community

Recommendation #8 – Make Family Members a Priority

Recommendation #9 – Choose Friends Who Encourage These Positive Values

Some people get a strong spiritual reward from gardening, and for others it’s all about the food. Some families garden together, while some gardeners have families that prefer to stay indoors. Some people garden alone, while others are active in local gardening clubs and community gardens.

What’s important here is to acknowledge that people need people. So, you might need to consider leaving your garden for these last three.

Making Use of Community Gardens

Community gardens are a great way that you can use your love of gardening to connect with others. Even if you already have your own garden at home, adopting a plot in a community garden will put you in touch with other like-minded people in your area. Local gardening groups and clubs are another great way to connect with others who share your love of gardening.

If your family and friends aren’t interested in gardening with you, leave your garden and meet them on their ground. You can always bring some of the wonderful flowers and food from your garden along, to share with your closest loved ones.

Gardening Your Way to a Long, Happy Life

I think the time has come to consider returning to some of the forgotten ways of our ancestors, which were just as effective, and often more efficient, than the way we do things now. Permaculture can be an exhaustive subject, but there are many new books available that translate the concepts into use for the home garden. This opens many vistas for continued learning and keeps our minds alert. Some of my favorite authors on the subject are Anna Hess, Toby Hemenway, and Christopher Shein.

Growing your own food gives you such a sense of satisfaction when you walk through the grocery store. The food there is bland and it lacks nutrition, but you notice the prices going up and up. Instead of wringing your hands and wondering how long you’ll be able to feed your family, you can feel wealthy – knowing that the most delicious, most nutritious food is already at home.

Go to your garden for health and long life. There you will find your medicines and your supplements. And these don’t need to be kept out of the reach of children. Instead of harmful side effects, they have wonderful, live-giving benefits.

sunflowers-in-bloom

Sunflowers in bloom

The garden provides more than just fresh produce. There is an energy exchange — a symbiotic relationship between people and plants. It’s obvious when you think of the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, but there is so much more. We were meant to be in a garden. The beautiful sights, the pleasant fragrances, and the songs of birds have a calming, healing influence on us. We take care of the garden, and it takes care of us.

Life began in a garden and it still flourishes there. The bible tells us that even Jesus sought solace in the garden. He went there to commune with His Father, and to gain strength for His supreme hour of testing.

The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth.
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than any place else on earth.

– Dorothy Frances Gurney

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COMMENTS(5)

  • Linda,

    Such a fantastic article! I was fortunate to meet my great grandmother who lived to 103. She would always stay active. She would say that was her key to living so long. Staying active gave her purpose, something to do, and something not to feel old.

    1. Linda Davidson says:

      Thank you. So you’re related to one of those centenarians! You’re right about staying active. It keeps the focus on living. My father-in-law made it to 93 and never missed a garden season. He was growing and selling cantaloupes his last summer.

  • this is a great article. I am brand-new to gardening. That is to say except for a garden I had when I was a very young man. I live at 6000 feet in central Utah. I have very little money to work with and so I began my garden with just the mulch that I could get from under the pine trees. My garden did very poorly outside of the greenhouse. Inside the greenhouse was a different story. My greenhouse is very small but with the same soil as what I used outside I was able to grow beets strawberries radishes and potatoes with good success. I was also able to harvest a very large supply of thistle. thistle is very hard to cook with but it makes him very great juice. The juice is exactly like spinach. Of course the cost benefit to this is that I do not have to grow it water it we did or in any way take care of it.

  • Subscribing to the Grow Network satisfies Recommendation #5 – Have a Reason to Get Up in the Morning. It is one of the first things I read each day.

    1. Michael Ford says:

      Hey Chuck – Nice to hear from you – and glad you’re enjoying the blog!

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