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Gardening for Health: Living in the Blue Zone

Make 2019 your year to start a garden

      I recently returned from a vacation to Greece, specifically, the remote island of Ikaria in the northeast Aegean Sea. My ancestral home, it is designated a Blue Zone by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner.
      The world’s five Blue Zones have high concentrations of centenarians —without problems like heart disease, dementia, diabetes and cancer. Research has shown that these Blue Zones have certain things in common.
     First and foremost, people have gardens and grow their own food. Exercise is part of their daily life. They drink herbal teas, have a strong sense of community and low stress. In Ikaria, they also drink goat’s milk. 
      Ikaria is a poor island by American standards, but the people are very happy. Some of the homes are as small as 150 square feet but most average about 1,000 square feet. We Americans never seem to have enough. But in Ikaria, an island of rocks looming 3,000 feet high and plunging to the clear blue Aegean, people seem content and happy to work in their gardens.
      As I wandered around the village, food that makes up their diet was everywhere. Almost every other house had olive trees, and the Ikarians use olive oil liberally. Lemon trees were laden with fruit, figs hung in clusters and pomegranates were overflowing. Fresh pomegranate seeds on goat yogurt with a drizzle of native honey was our treat. Grapes for wine, quince, apricots and cactus fruits are all grown. Greek salad and potatoes are staples eaten every day.
      Wild greens and herbs such as fennel grow everywhere. Purslane, redroot and dandelions are some of their favorites. Rosemary grows as big as hedges.
      The people raise chickens, goats and rabbits, but the sea provides a vast array of fish, squid and octopus.
      Wherever you walk, you get a cardiac workout as you’re always going uphill or down.
      Today around the U.S., community makeovers to Blue Zone-type lifestyles have started in Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Hawaii and California. 
     Growing a garden and knowing where your food comes from is essential to good health. It slows us down in our fast-paced society and helps to reduce stress. Herbs add fragrance, flavor and important medicinal compounds such as antioxidants, vitamins, minerals — many of which have antimicrobial and antifungal benefits.
      The mere act of tending a garden, even as small as a container, makes us move and stretch without thinking of exercise. Picking a handful of lettuce, arugula and kale and garnishing with thyme, parsley, chives and a couple of fiery orange nasturtium flowers makes for a pleasingly happy salad that enlivens your inner being. Sharing it with friends or family must surely double the benefit.
      I challenge you to try some Blue Zone living for a year and see if you are better for it.
Maria Price, founder of Willow Oak Herb and Flower Farm in Severn, joins us in 2019 with the column ­Gardening for Health.