I’ve been ordering seeds this month. January is my garden planning month where I check last year’s garden journal and decide what to plant this year. I was frankly shocked at how easy cucumbers were to grow in my partially shaded backyard. On a whim, I just threw a packet of seeds in with the pumpkins. I’m so happy thinking about being in my little garden.
I recently read how important it is for humans to have a connection with the soil, dirt. Its benefits go way beyond growing food to eat or getting exercise. There are bacteria in the soil (specifically: Mycobacterium vaccae) that work similarly to antidepressants. While many antidepressants are selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (they slow the rate at which your brain loses serotonin), Mycobacterium vaccae increases the rate at which you produce serotonin. Gardening helps you feel happier, more relaxed, while also feeling more energized.
In addition to increasing serotonin levels, researchers have since found lipids in Mycobacterium vaccae that bind to the receptors in immune cells and prevent inflammation from occurring. The discovery of this lipid has researchers further studying how this bacteria can help fight stress levels in soldiers and first responders, along with reducing inflammatory diseases.
Another study showed that children raised in rural environments which contain animals and bacteria-laden dust grow up to have more stress resilient immune systems and may be at lower risk of mental illness than those who grow up in cities.
You don’t have to be digging in the soil to ingest M. vaccae. Walking in the woods or simply playing outside is enough to inhale it. The next time you feel anxious, a little digging or a walk down a nature path may be enough to calm you down and improve your mood.
Every year I brew a hot cup of tea and spend an afternoon with my seed catalogs. I’ve learned that the planning matters as much as the planting. Flipping through the pages of heirloom flowers and veggies is a lovely antidote to the gray winter weather. I love that the descriptions in the catalogs speak to me as much as the professional gardeners. The engaging, encouraging format makes me feel that I’m as much a part of the gardening community as anyone else.
Printed seed catalogs date to about the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1786, Peter Bellet, florist, advertised in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser that he had an extensive variety of the most rare bulbs and seeds. Long before and after that, most people got seeds by harvesting and saving them in envelopes, cloth sacks, bottles, and jars. You didn’t need to buy seeds for what you could grow; you needed to set aside seeds for the next year or swap with a neighbor.
In 1900, nearly two in five Americans lived on farms and three in five lived in the country. Most people knew how to grow things. In the nineteen-twenties, hybrid seeds were developed beginning with two varieties of corn. Hybrid seeds adapt better to stress, they produce plants with larger fruit, and are disease resistant. The drought resistant qualities of hybrid seeds after the dust bowl of 1936 led farmers to hasten their use. Hybrid seeds grow well but you can’t save the seeds and plant them next year, because they don’t grow well, may not even sprout.
In the twenty-twenties, when there are too few birds and butterflies, seed catalogs sell heirlooms (seeds) with a promise to save the planet: protecting biodiversity. Pollinator gardens are becoming the most popular to plant, to support wildlife. Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend.
At the height of winter, ordering seeds and planning a garden offers the promise of spring. I know that there is plenty of beauty amid the bleak January days, inspiration is just a catalog away.
Kate Emery General is a retired chef/restaurant owner that was born and raised in Casper, Wyoming. Kate loves her grandchildren, knitting and watercolor painting. Kate and her husband , Matt are longtime residents of Cambridge’s West End where they enjoy swimming and bicycling.