Research supports what COVID gardeners knew — it’s good therapy
By Natalie Reidford
While it’s not hard to find the negative impact COVID-19 has had on our lives, silver linings are out there.
More people are growing their food, said Jennifer Nettles, horticulture/agriculture coordinator at Vincennes University.
“You would think there would be an age bracket,” said Nettles, “but the research from Purdue (conducted) after the pandemic showed (gardeners’) ages anywhere from 18 to 65.”
The research done in her therapeutic horticulture class echoes the results from Purdue.
“Most (gardeners) had positive responses about continuing,” said Nettles.
Nettles teaches various agriculture and horticulture classes at VU, but one of the most captivating right now is therapeutic horticulture.
“It’s my new favorite class,” she said.
It’s also a favorite among many VU students and staff. Any student can take it as an elective, and many have, including some nontraditional students who attend online. Faculty members have signed up, too.
“We’ve had psychology majors, advanced manufacturing majors, all interests pulling together,” Nettles said.
Why the broad interest?
“Gardening can be so therapeutic,” said Nettles. She added she’s been reading research that indicates being outside lowers cortisol, a hormone the body produces in response to stress.
“With technology, we’ve gotten away from the outdoors,” said Nettles. “We need the plants, and they need us. We need to breathe, and the plants give us food.”
Her class studies a phenomenon called plant blindness, the inability to see or notice plants around us. While some researchers believe educational and social biases work to induce plant blindness, some believe our brains are hard-wired to focus on movement and activity instead of stationary plants.
Whatever the reasons for plant blindness, it’s essential to overcome it to some degree so that we’re aware of the critical role plants play in our lives, Nettles said. She helps students make the connection between plants and everyday objects, from our food to the wooden cabinets we store it in.
Plant-based therapy can help people under chronic stress, said Nettles. Frontline workers and individuals with PTSD, for example, can benefit from spending time around plants.
Nettles also spoke of the benefits of “landscaping in lockup,” gardening programs for inmates and how they can use gardening for social and vocational services.
The latest in landscaping
Most people picture a garden in a rectangular plot with neat rows of produce. But Nettles pointed out that fruits and vegetables can be an attractive part of the landscaping around one’s house.
Blueberry bushes and blackberry vines on trellises can work nicely into the area around a home, either planted directly in the ground or patio containers.
“The outdoor kitchen has always been a hot seller in gardens, and maybe even more now as people want to spend more time outdoors,” Nettles said. Fruit trees, leafy greens and colorful produce create a landscape that makes garden-to-fork meals convenient.
Nettles cautions gardeners planting edibles in the ground to have the soil tested first, especially if they don’t know the history of the surrounding land, which could contain flakes of old paint or other toxins.
“Plants can uptake lead,” she said.
Growers are now more aware of invasive species, especially since the Knox County invasive plant ordinance came into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The regulation prevents the sale, trade and import of 64 invasive plant species in Knox County. Nettles said growers are now allowed to sell invasive species outside of the county but cautioned that selling and planting near Knox County could still affect the area.
Nettles has incorporated native species in her landscaping. She said the plants are “doing great” in her sandy Oaktown soil.
“I don’t have to water or fertilize them,” she said.
Nettles obtained her plants from Will Drews, the Knox County Soil and Water Conservation District’s natural resource specialist.
“Will Drews does a really good job of propagating and selling native species at farmers markets and on the 4-H grounds,” Nettles said.
Growers can purchase varieties of native plants at local landscaping businesses and nurseries. Drews, however, is personally gathering his plants.
A well-landscaped yard often begins with lawn care. Nettles reminded homeowners to keep mower blades high to keep the grass healthy.
“Keep it as high as you can for the grass you have,” she said, adding that most varieties do well in the 3 to 4-inch range.
“When you mow low, you’re stressing the grass and encouraging other weeds to grow,” Nettles said. “Mowing higher is healthier to out-compete the weeds.”
Growers who want to try new techniques this year might try adding produce in unexpected places and replacing invasive species with native plants that are not only easier to maintain but are also environmentally friendly.