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Gardening Can Help You Battle the Blues of Staying at Home

Coronavirus concerns may keep you from socializing, but you don't have to stay inside

Older Americans across the country have been staying home as COVID-19 cases spread, but staying away from crowds doesn't have to keep them from planting seedlings or pruning rose bushes.

Even as more states issue stay-at-home orders, at least one plant nursery chain reports that older adults are busy shopping for tomatoes and peppers as if inspired by the famous victory gardens of both world wars.

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In fact, health experts encourage older adults to garden in order to get exercise and reduce stress. Interpreting stay-at-home restrictions as staying on the couch could cause an absence of activity that is unhealthy.

They should continue with gardening and other outdoor activities, as long as they practice social distancing, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento said in email.

"They could lose muscle function, and they could lose physical function,” says Elsa S. Strotmeyer, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Aging and Population in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Pick your garden

So, as springtime temperatures warm much of the nation, older adults can choose a variety of garden styles:

  • Back or front yards large enough for large tomato plants, fruit trees or climbing roses
  • Pots on porches or patios for smaller fruits, vegetables and flowers
  • Window boxes, often popular for herbs
  • Community gardens

Yet the reality of the coronavirus epidemic has penetrated even communal gardens, including Garden City Harvest's operations in Missoula, Montana, where gardeners must stay at least 6 feet apart and wear gloves, with only one gardener at a time allowed in the shed, according to its website.

For seniors, becoming infected with this new strain of coronavirus is especially significant. Older adults may be at higher risk for more serious complications, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

That risk might rise even higher for those with underlying health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. So far, 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been among those 65 and older, the CDC reports.

That fact alone can cause anxiety. Gardeners have long called their work a stress reliever, and a number of scientific studies support them.

Gardening was found to reduce stress-related cortisol in a well-known 2011 study in the Netherlands. And a 2018 article in the London-based journal of England's Royal College of Physicians commended gardening's mental and physical benefits, citing 81 studies.

"Health professionals should therefore encourage their patients to make use of green space and to work in gardens,” the article states.

Growing plants promotes happiness

Horticulture therapy, which employs gardening to treat both mental and physical ailments, has gained increasing support. Such therapy used with nursing home residents found that it makes people happier, according to another 2018 study.

That effect is well known to Jonquil Nelson of Bozeman, Montana, founder and executive director of the 10-year-old nonprofit Sage Gardeners.

She normally works with volunteers to build and maintain gardens for free for assisted living facilities, memory care centers and veterans’ nursing homes. Now that COVID-19 has put that effort on hold, her group continues to work with private homes, all gratis, she says.

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Growing plants has a powerful effect on seniors, Nelson says. She encourages them to plant seeds indoors “because it starts this sense of hope."

“It's something to do every day, to check on it, water it, look forward to something — food on the plate,” she says. “It's powerful."

Residents in assisted living communities also don't have to worry about exposing themselves to infection if they get outside and garden, says Rachel Reeves, director of communications at the National Center for Assisted Living.

"As long as they're practicing social distancing in their gardening, that's a great idea to keep residents engaged at this time,” Reeves says.

Gardening provides aerobic and muscle-building exercise. One hour of weeding, trimming and raking can burn 300 calories, according to a fact sheet from Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension, based in College Station, Texas.

For older adults staying at home, it's important to maintain activity, says the University of Pittsburgh's Strotmeyer. But they will need to calibrate their yard or garden work with their own ability level. “If you get muscle pain from digging, don't do it,” she says.

Seniors shopping at Armstrong Garden Centers in California have been choosing edible plants, whether tomatoes, strawberries or peppers, says Desiree Heimann, vice president of marketing for the 31-store employee-owned company based in Glendora, California.

"You can't stay cooped up in your house every day,” Heimann says. “The garden is really a safe haven."

How to Grow Herbs at Home

Buy Without Going Out

Gardeners eager to launch their growing season can shop for supplies despite the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic.

Those who shop at Lowe's, based in Mooresville, North Carolina, and Home Depot, headquartered in Atlanta, can search for items online. Sturdy items such as mulch may be available for delivery, but you may have to have a friend or volunteer pick up more delicate flower, herb and vegetable seedlings for you at a garden center or store.

A variety of smaller but popular firms do have seeds and plants just a click away. They also sell mulch, tomato cages and even live worms.

• Burpee Seed Co., dating to 1876, in Pennsylvania, sells more supplies than seeds.

• Gardener's Supply Co. is an employee-owned firm in Burlington, Vermont.

• Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co., founded in 1866, is based in Greendale, Indiana.

• Renee's Garden, in coastal California, features seeds for heirloom plants.

• White Flower Farm is a family-owned business in northwestern Connecticut.

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