Growing positivity—mind and body

June 17, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood, RN, PhD
FAAN Professor, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing

Research has shown that communing with nature is beneficial to our health and well-being. Likewise, research has shown that gardening can improve physical and mental health. Research has shown that communing with nature and gardening can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and promote heart health, promote weight loss, and reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, fibroids, and several other health concerns.

Valeria E. Carter, MD, Research Associate for Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Milwaukee grew up in a culture that avidly gardens and has researched the connection between nature and mental well-being.

“Gardening, in general, has obvious physical benefits. It also increases access to fresh foods and improves food security.

“There are many life lessons we can learn from gardening. Gardening can teach us to let go of perfectionism when we see how nature gives itself grace. For example, even if the vegetables or plants don’t turn out exactly how we tended, they can become fertilizer for new beginnings. We can start over. Gardening also allows us to turn away from our computer screen to give ourselves opportunities to connect with nature. Even if you don’t live with a chronic condition, or have an autoimmune disease, we are all learning to handle stress— especially on the heels of the pandemic—so we all benefit from activities and spaces that help us reduce stress.

“My culture is very nature-based, so growing up I watched both of my grandmothers and my mother tend to their plants. I garden for visual purposes. I garden so I can feel that sense of peace, serenity, and see that there is something alive next to me,” said Dr. Carter.

Ghazaalah Omar-Dadzie, affectionately known as ‘Sister G’, is a member of the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) team. She is also a cheerleader and an advocate for the benefits of maintaining a positive attitude.

“I do not have a garden, but I have some house plants that my husband and I share. He waters them and I direct him” she said laughing.

“I am basically a homebody, so being confined during the pandemic did not really bother me. I always try to maintain a positive attitude whether it is by tending plants or something doing something else. I think everyone should find something that can uplift them or someone they can uplift. Find the joy in whatever it is that you do, even if you must laugh by yourself and love yourself,” said Sister G.

Remaining positive and loving herself is something that Stephanie Momon has learned to do in the face of difficult circumstances. She finds one of her ‘happy places’ in gardening, which can be a productive and healthy activity for people living with chronic diseases or disabilities. Momon is a breast cancer survivor. She was also in a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. She knows firsthand about the physical and mental benefits that can take place with gardening.

“I have been gardening since I was 10 years old. Growing up on North 16th Street in Milwaukee, my parents always had a garden. They planted collard greens, cabbages, tomatoes, beets, turnips, and kale. They also had a big apple tree in the backyard. Gardening saves money and the food is healthier than food that is canned. I have trouble kneeling, so when I go to the garden, I bring a towel with me to lessen the discomfort of kneeling. I was using a cane. But my balance and walking have improved, so I no longer need a cane when I go out to the garden.

“I enjoy being out in the fresh air and I love checking on the vegetables and watching them grow. I am a two-time survivor— breast cancer and was hit by a drunk driver in 2008 — so I’m making the most of my life. I’m learning, eating healthier, and engaged with an activity that I enjoy. Having a physical disability does not stop me. I basically do everything that everyone else does,” said Momon.

Momon now has a ‘garden buddy’ to help her learn different gardening tips. She recently enlisted a friend, Curtistene Montgomery, to share a community garden plot with her at the We Got This Community Garden site located on 9th and Ring Streets.

“I’ve been gardening for about 45 years. I grew up in the south and my parents had a big garden every year. As soon as my siblings and I turned 8 years old, my mother would teach us how to plant and care for vegetables in the garden. I loved gardening and sitting out in the garden eating ripened tomatoes with my brother,” said Montgomery.

In fact, Montgomery loves gardening so much that in addition to the community garden she now shares with her garden buddy, she has two other gardens in Shorewood—one at Shorewood High School, and another in a neighbor’s backyard.

“My neighbors spend most of the year in Arizona, so they allow me to use their backyard for gardening. In return, I save them some of my harvest. I grow tomatoes, spinach, peas, beans, collard greens, cabbage, arugula, basil, and other vegetables. After harvesting, I freeze, can, and preserve the vegetables. Since I end up with so many vegetables, I give some of the harvest to my neighbor, relatives, and friends.

“I recently attended a cooking demonstration sponsored by Groundwork Milwaukee. It was there that I learned about the different community gardening sites. I knew Stephanie wanted a garden, so we decided to share a plot at the We Got This Community Garden site. They have classes there on Tuesdays and share gardening tips. That is when we go there to tend our gardens—pulling up weeds, fertilizing, watering, and making sure everything is intact,” said Montgomery.

“A neighborhood resident oversees the community garden, so when Momon and Montgomery are unable to tend to their garden, he makes sure the garden is properly watered.”

Montgomery said she likes the fact that Groundwork Milwaukee provides vegetables to enable our neighbors to help themselves. She has more than enough vegetables from her two other gardens, so she plans to donate her portion of the harvest from the We Got This Garden to neighborhood residents. She also said that, even with two other gardens, gardening is not time consuming.

“I might spend four hours a week at all the sites at the start of the planting season. As the vegetables start to grow, it takes less time to take care of them. Gardening is a wonderful thing—it’s fun, relaxing, and you get to eat the bounty,” she said.

Dr. Carter agrees with these urban gardeners about the physical and mental merits of gardening.

“Besides the obvious benefits of harvesting healthy and nutritional food, there is something beneficial that comes from experiencing ‘life’ around us. These spaces are important for people with chronic health conditions or disabilities. In the aftermath of the pandemic, we are all looking for outlets to bridge depression and practice patience. Being around the creativity of those who garden and the different health benefits that come from that is invaluable,” she said.

* * * *

The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.