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Grow your health by planting a ‘prescription’ garden

“What greater delight is there than to behold the earth appareled with plants, as with a robe of embroidered work …The delight is great but the use is greater.” 

— John Gerard, "The Herball," 1597

One of my gardening goals this year is to become more intentional about using my garden to optimize my health.

I certainly derive physical and mental health benefits by working outdoors with my plants. However, I want to maximize the garden’s potential for promoting my well-being by growing specific foods focused on what ails me. I believe this is what English herbalist John Gerard meant when he observed that plants are as medicinally valuable as they are aesthetically pleasing.

In Gerard’s day, healing gardens, called physic or "physick" gardens, were common throughout Europe. Physicians, who were also botanists, and apothecaries used the gardens to grow their healing herbs and to teach students how to identify and prepare them. Commonly grown herbs in the physic garden included mint, sage, lavender, feverfew, sweet marjoram, basil and oregano, all of which are still featured in modern-day herb gardens.

In addition to age-old knowledge about the therapeutic characteristics of herbs, more recent scientific research has confirmed that phytonutrients, derived from vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds contain essential health-giving properties. Not only are vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants found in our garden plants important for preventative health care, they also provide an effective offense against any ailments we already have.

Strategically planning a contemporary "physic" garden requires us to first pinpoint our health concerns, and then to identify food crops we can grow aimed at remedying these problems. A useful resource for this interesting exercise is "Rx from the Garden" by Kathleen Barnes. In the first part of the book, she lists 101 ailments, from acne to warts, and then “prescribes” specific vegetables, melons, berries and nuts that contain phytonutrients known to combat particular afflictions. Barnes also describes the health-providing properties of each food in relation to the ailment. In the second part, she offers tips on growing these crops in your garden.

Sitting down to compile a list of my specific health complaints was itself instructive, as I admit I usually hurry about my life trying not to think about my aches and pains. In the end, I came up with weakening eyesight, lower back pain, joint pain in my hands, and stress. Accordingly, here is my garden "prescription":

• Eyesight — sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, melons, tomatoes, dried beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds

• Back pain — chili peppers, cherries, red grapes, mint

• Joint pain — hot peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli, strawberries, bell peppers, grapes, oregano, spinach, blueberries

• Stress — celery, green beans, lavender, chamomile

Not surprisingly, recurring plants on my list, such as spinach, berries and beans are sometimes called "superfoods" because they provide a plethora of health benefits for a wide variety of ills.

My next step is to gather seeds for these crops, and then schedule sowing the seeds indoors, as well as setting out plant starts in my raised vegetable beds. I use the "Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley: Year Round and Month by Month" to help in selecting varieties recommended for this area by the OSU Extension Service, and to plan my planting calendar. For example, early February will be time to directly seed my spinach and to transplant strawberry and perennial herbs, including oregano and mint.

I’m excited about the idea of planning my garden with an eye toward growing my health. Most of these plants I raise anyway, but now that I know they’re geared toward my specific health concerns, my gardening efforts will be doubly purposeful. As advised by Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived 2,000 years before John Gerard’s physic gardens, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.