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Growing an Edible Garden Provides Both Physical and Mental Health Benefits

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Local experts offer insight on what to grow this summer.

With summer upon us and Pennsylvanians flocking outdoors, backyards have become sanctuaries in these uncertain times, whether for a spontaneous game of corn hole or unwinding by a fire pit. Recently, with so many at home, there’s been an increased interest in edible gardening, too. “Seed companies are just blown away. Everything has hopped off the shelves,” says Sally McCabe of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Edible gardens can be simple to start, whether you have a vast outdoor space or just a windowsill. Not only can you reap the benefits with fresh produce throughout the season—minus the trip to the store—but growing fruits, veggies and herbs can have mental benefits, too.

Pam Young, a horticultural therapist at Main Line Health’s Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, works with patients recovering from various medical traumas. “When you plant a seed and it germinates and grows, it’s an example of hope, and even through all that is happening in the world right now, the garden and plants outside haven’t stopped growing,” she says. “Plants can be a symbol of hope right now. They can provide a practical platform for healing. They’re not judgmental, so maybe that gives people peace.”

Whether seeking mental health benefits or simply a new hobby, now’s the perfect time to start your own edible garden. To help residents, PHS is offering virtual Zoom workshops and guides during the pandemic. Vegetables are the easiest crop for beginners to grow, says Justin Trezza, the program manager of community gardens at PHS. “I actually find herbs to be a little bit more difficult. I don’t know why, but I think going with simpler vegetables is the easiest thing,” he adds. McCabe recommends starting with things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash and cucumbers.

For those looking for something a bit more unique, Trezza recommends pawpaw, a sweet, tangy fruit that thrives regionally this time of year, but rarely shows up at farm stands or grocery stores.

While summer is under way and growers may only yield one crop this year, McCabe says not to be discouraged by weather. “You might be too late for the spring season, but you’re ready for the summer season,” she says. “It’s always the appropriate time to start a garden.”

If you’re unable to eat all the produce your edible garden yields, some local organizations are collecting food donations for those in need, including PHS’s Harvest 2020, which is working to mobilize 100,000 gardeners in the region.

Green thumb or not, edible gardens are a fun and practical hobby to pick up this summer.