The Joys and Gifts of Gardening

'You can't raise vegetables on the internet,' but you can sure till the soil — and realize healthy and lifelong benefits

Some of my fondest childhood memories include padding around the vegetable garden with my sisters while our Greek immigrant parents planted tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes — even onions and green beans.

They’d  learned from their parents’ generations earlier on their respective Aegean Islands before arriving on these shores legally, albeit separately.

Still, they didn’t make a big fuss about “organic” or “farm-to-table” in those days, because the farm, so to speak, was our backyard. In hindsight, I realize the fresh bounty they grew, seemingly effortlessly, was something of a luxury — not to mention a labor of love.

Today, we hear more and more about the health benefits of planting gardens of all kinds. While the soil itself is known to contain a natural antidepressant that helps boost serotonin levels, according to research, gardening helps relieve stress and reduce dementia — among a host of other perks.

But there’s more to it than myriad therapeutic aspects. There’s the ecstasy of becoming one with God’s beautiful creation and co-creating with Him.

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When my twin sister moved to Atlanta to be with her groom, who is from the Peach State, she was welcomed not only with open arms but with a burst of bloom — in the form of hundreds of pink and red-hued impatiens.

“He wanted me to see flowers from every window of the house,” said my sister of her husband George, which, incidentally, means “one who cultivates” in Greek. In essence, making her happy brought him joy.

Karena Poke, president and founder of Urban Philanthropy by KP, is also reaping intrinsic rewards by turning her front yard into an edible garden.

“I really like to share the produce with friends, family and neighbors,” she told LifeZette. “Some of my friends have started backyard gardens as a result.”

Based in Houston, Texas, Poke is growing a cornucopia of cucumbers, ginger, gypsy peppers, jalapeño peppers, onions, rosemary, thyme, Italian parsley, basil, lemon basil, and mint to the delight of others.

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Poke’s deep foray into gardening began in 2012, when a client suggested her public relations firm, which aims to build brands through philanthropy, start a community garden in a rough section of Memphis, Tennessee, where vegetables were hard to find.

The success from that project, she recalled, sparked a heightened interest in horticulture, which inspired her to become a certified master gardener in 2015. And through her volunteer work with Texas A&M University’s Harris County Master Gardener Association, Poke is also refining her culinary predilections.

“We conduct trials to see which variety of fruits and vegetables grow best in our area, so we are always growing lots of vegetables that I would never think about growing or eating,” she said. “This has allowed me to experiment with cooking different varieties of squash, zucchini, peppers, leeks, onions, tomatoes, okra, carrots, kale, collard greens, beans, and peas.”

Since embarking on her gardening odyssey, Poke has not eaten meat. Instead, she finds herself preoccupied with growing obscure varieties of vegetables, such as purple hull peas. “I harvested enough to freeze over the winter,” she said. “They are delicious.”

Unlike Poke, who discovered the charms of gardening later in life, Frank McEwen has been cultivating the earth ever since he can remember.

“I get a great deal of satisfaction from digging in the dirt, working up a sweat, watering my garden and watching it grow,” he said.

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For growing herbs, kale, collards, tomatoes and cucumbers yearly, McEwen practices square-foot gardening, a technique that divides a garden into small square sections to maximize results.

“You don’t need a large area to yield a lot of produce,” he said.McEwen, owner of McEwen & Sons Gristmill, an organic corn-grinding company in Wilsonville, Alabama, waxes philosophic about the joy he derives from planting.

“I can look back after I’ve weeded my garden or picked the daily crop and take it to my happy wife, who loves to cook with garden-fresh vegetables, and know that I’ve accomplished something that will bring my friends and family joy.”

He added, “Nobody produces anything in our wonderful country any more. This is my way of fighting back. You can’t raise vegetables on the internet. There’s no app available for that.”

This article originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated.

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.

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