SIOUX CITY | Peggy Hanner has been gardening since she was old enough to walk.
Her grandmother had a green thumb for fruits and vegetables, while her mother enjoyed being creative with flowers.
Hanner, director of cardiology clinic services for Cardiovascular Associates, has room for both flowers and food-bearing plants on her acreage between Sloan and Salix. Her vegetable garden yields lettuce, spinach, radishes, zucchini, peppers and just about any other vegetable you'd find in a salad, while her flower garden is home to 750 varieties of daylilies that produce a "riot of color."
"I've been gardening for 50-plus years. It's definitely therapeutic and it's a great outlet for me," Hanner said as she stood among 24 raised-beds that make up a community garden sponsored by UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's. The garden, where cucumbers, tomatoes, kale and beets are flourishing, opened to the public in May. All but three handicapped accessible beds are claimed for the year.
Since Sioux City was named a Blue Zones demonstration site in 2013, community gardens have sprung up and expanded around Siouxland in the lots of churches, schools and businesses. The Blue Zones Project says community gardens are a great way for people to exercise, eat healthier and gather in a community setting.
Hanner has researched and presented information about the health benefits of gardening, which are numerous. Studies have shown that gardening promotes weight loss and flexibility, reduces bone loss, improves coordination and can even boost the immune system.
In addition to helping a person maintain a healthy weight, heavy gardening can reduce the risk of developing heart disease, and the Journal of the American Heart Association also says it can help prevent stroke.
Gardening is recommended by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to lower high blood pressure. Just 30 minutes of moderate-level physical activity, such as gardening, can prevent and control high blood pressure.
On average, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It's no surprise that more than one-third of U.S. adults are overweight and that one in five school-aged children are considered obese. If they picked up a spade and spent an hour planting and weeding in their backyards or a community garden, like the one flourishing just a block from St. Luke's campus near the Ronald McDonald House, their efforts would equal about 35 minutes of jogging.
Hanner said the hospital's senior team got the community garden up and running after recognizing a need for gardening space on the city's north side. For $25, members of the public can rent a plot to plant and maintain.
"I think we're going to see that trend continue as more and more people are living in apartments and spaces where they don't have availability to put a garden patch in their backyards," Hanner said.
A great stress reliever
Teresa Ernst's first foray into the world of gardening wasn't to try out a new hobby, but out of necessity.
Ernst moved from a Des Moines apartment to an acreage in Whiting, Iowa, after marrying a farmer. Her "yard" consisted of weeds and dirt. She had to do something to improve it.
"You're mowing in a cloud of dust all the time. It was just gross getting in my eyes and nose all the time," she said. "I couldn't stand it."
Ernst took a landscaping course at Western Iowa Tech Community College, determined to come up with a solution for her lawn. The class helped her grow grass. Then she got into planting flowers, which she has been doing ever since.
"I just kind of keep adding things as I go, because I've got the space and it's just fun," said Ernst, who learned quickly what will and won't grow in her sandy soil. "I like hostas for the shade and daylilies for the sun."
Over the years, Ernst, who works as a marketing communications specialist and older adult services coordinator for Mercy Medical Center, has found peace and relaxation through the act of gardening. It's her time to be outside after spending the workday in a windowless office in Mercy's Central Medical Building.
A study by Dutch researchers published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2011, found that gardening can relive stress better than curling up with a book indoors.
While both activities led to a decline in the stress hormone cortisol, which ramps up appetite and leads to weight gain, the decreases were greater among study participants who gardened outdoors for 30 minutes. Those who gardened also reported being in a better mood than those who read.
"To me, that's my health benefit -- (gardening) gets me out of a chair. It gets me moving. It gets me using my muscles," said Ernst, who became a Master Gardener in 2007 through Iowa State University Extension's Monona County Office.
As a Master Gardener, Ernst logs volunteer hours answering questions about gardening and pitching in at community and memorial gardens in Whiting.
"When people see in the paper that you're a Master Gardener, then they all call you," she said chuckling.
Ernst tried to help a woman who couldn't get tomatoes to grow and counseled other callers who were stumped about what to plant in the first place. Ernst's sister, who lives in southern Iowa, even consulted her about pesky insects that were killing her trees. They turned out to be emerald ash borers, as Ernst suspected.
Although Ernst loves spending time in the garden, she contends the hobby isn't a good fit for everyone.
"It's probably not for everybody, because it's dirty and it's sweaty," she said. "For me, I just really enjoy it."