Gardening for Health

Gardening may help cancer survivors' bodies and minds.

Do you have a garden? Does your cancer center have a garden? The cancer center that I am affiliated with is smack in the middle of downtown (a concrete jungle), hardly a bush or plant in sight! My husband and I did plant some vegetables and herbs in our backyard though. Nothing beats a home-grown juicy tomato!

A recently published pilot study of older cancer survivors examined the effect of a year-long gardening intervention on participants dietary intake and other health-related outcomes.1 The participants were age 60 or older and had been diagnosed with early or mid-stage cancers that have high survival rates such as non-metastatic bladder, breast, prostate or thyroid cancer. Those randomized to the intervention were provided with a raised garden bed or container garden and supplies such as plants and seeds. They were also paired with cooperative extension agency master gardeners who helped the participants establish three seasonal vegetable gardens over the course of the study. The master gardeners maintained contact every two weeks (alternating between home visits and phone/email.

Researchers assessed the participants’ diets, strength and balance, quality of life, and overall health before and after the intervention. They found that survivors’ vegetable and fruit intake increased in the intervention group by one serving per day. They also noticed slight improvements in performance in:

  • A 2-minute step test (marching in place for 2 minutes, lifting the knees to a marked point midway between the patella and iliac crest)
  • A timed 8-foot walk measuring gait speed
  • An 8 foot get up and go test (starting from a seated position, standing and walking 8 feet, returning to chair and sitting down)

There was also lessened increases in waist circumference compared to control participants. About 85% planned to continue gardening and 70% had plans to expand their garden. Participants attributed the garden to eating a healthier diet, trying new vegetables, and getting more physical activity.

Many cancer centers now have what is called a Cancer Victory Garden. Victory Gardens were first promoted after WW II. Extension agents provided seeds, fertilizer and garden tools to citizens to help with the war effort. In 1943 the USDA estimated that victory gardens produced more than 40% of the vegetables grown for that year’s consumption.2

Cancer Victory Gardens may be planted and maintained by various people—cancer patients and survivors, caregivers, or healthcare professionals. One description of a Cancer Victory Garden is that by having one you are “planting seeds of hope” for cancer patients. A beautiful intent and, of course, outcome! These gardens are often used as “teaching classrooms” to educate patients and families on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Classes may even incorporate the bounty from the garden in recipe demonstrations.

Interested in starting a garden yourself or have patients who might be interested? Find out what help is available in your area. Today there are almost 3000 extension offices. Many of these have a Master Gardener Program (as in the study) with individuals who have been trained by extension agents. These gardeners volunteer their time and conduct educational gardening programs, answering calls and questions. Most state extensions have a toll-free hotline to answer gardening questions. Many gardening centers and home improvement stores have workshops and classes too.

All healthcare professionals, including nurses, should encourage patients to consume a plant-based diet. Gardening may be one way for cancer survivors to increase their vegetable and fruit intake, be more physically active and improve overall outlook. As one participant in the study stated, “After my health issues, it was extremely rewarding to work with the earth and grow healthy things to eat. The garden gave me happiness.”


  • Demark-Wahnefried W, Cases MG, Cantor AB, et al. Pilot randomized controlled trial of a home vegetable gardening intervention among older cancer survivors shoes feasibility, satisfaction, and promise in improving vegetable and fruit consumption, reassurance of worth, and the trajectory of central adiposity. J Acad Nut Diet. 118;4:689-704. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2017.11.001.
  • National Gardening Association. A New Generation of Victory Gardens. National Gardening Association website. Accessed May 29, 2018.

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