Community gardening can also grow a bounty of physical and mental health benefits, a CU study finds

Litt’s idea: Study community gardening by “actually doing a randomized control trial.”

Litt said she thinks it’s the first-ever randomized-controlled trials of community gardeners. She and her team randomly put people in two groups.

“(One) that would receive a garden plot, and the other that would be in a control environment. So that means they didn’t garden,” she said.

John Daley/CPR News
Jill Litt, left, is a CU Boulder environmental studies professor. Linda Appel Lipsius, right, is the CEO of the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens, which was a partner in Litt’s study.

And Litt enlisted new gardeners.

“We were able to look at whether you could learn to garden and be successful at it and have health benefits,” she said.

They recruited nearly 300 adults, most from low-income Denver households, who were new to gardening. They assigned half to a community garden in the spring. 

By fall, the gardeners ate 7 percent more fiber a day. They got 42 more minutes of physical activity a week — two ways known to reduce the risk of cancer and chronic diseases. Litt says this provides “the evidence to show that green spaces and cities can be part of our health story.”

The study was published earlier this year in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health, Colorado State University and Michigan State University also contributed to the research. The American Cancer Society funded the research. 

‘The garden becomes a bridge to allow people to participate in things that are good for their health’

Litt said the data could give clinicians or care professionals information to inform options to recommend to patients.

“This could become something that we’re calling ‘nature-based social prescribing,’ ” Litt said. “So the garden becomes a bridge to allow people to participate in things that are good for their health.”

John Daley/CPR News
John Anduri is a gardener from Denver and three-time cancer survivor.

That concept appeals to John Anduri, a gardener from Denver. He’s survived bouts with cancer three times, most recently colon cancer. 

“They’re saying, you know, ‘Exercise and what you eat really matters.’ So that was a real wake-up call,” he said.

Anduri, who is 70, was not part of the study. He said he’d never gardened before his diagnosis, then discovered a garden at a nearby elementary school. 

“So I’ve had a plot there now going into my sixth year. And it’s fun,” Anduri said. “Meeting other gardeners … it’s a community. I’ve met people from Syria, Korea, from Mexico,”

Now the former minister, journalist and educator can tell you all about broccoli and cabbage as cancer fighters. 

“It’s not just eating a balanced diet,” he said, “but it’s actually, I think food is medicine.”

denver-urban-gardening-health-20230714Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The beehive at the Horse Barn Community Garden at 33rd and Arapahoe Streets in Denver, July 14, 2023.

The research could be a boon to community gardens

The study could have real-world implications, said Linda Appel Lipsius, CEO of the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens, a study partner. It operates a network of 193 community gardens across six metro Denver counties, including more than 60 school-based community gardens.

“We live in a data-driven world,” she said. “Once you get some data, once you get some clinically sort of substantiated numbers to go behind it, it validates what you do.”

She said she hoped the study encourages broader community support for gardening. 

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