Growing your own vegetable garden generates more than just produce. When you plant your own vegetable patch, you will reap economic, physical and mental health benefits as well as the peace of mind of knowing exactly where your food comes from and what you have put into it and on it. You can also harvest an array of heirloom and exotic vegetables with flavors not available in any local store.
Gardening provides strength training, cardiovascular exercise, stretching, stress release and healthy food, all without the expense of a gym, says Sandra Mason, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service. In fact, gardening actually pays you back economically: According to research by the National Gardening Association, the average backyard garden generates a profit of $500 per year. Intensive gardening methods can easily yield produce valued at several times that amount.
Vegetable gardens can serve many different functions, each of which yields unique benefits. Choosing heirloom, exotic, or rare vegetable varieties can produce slightly lower harvest volumes of gourmet fare that cannot be found at local stores. Specialty gardens can grow ingredients for your favorite recipes, such as pesto, ratatouille, or dill pickles. A garden planted with an eye toward green in your bank account might focus on vegetables with the greatest economic return or feature potatoes, cabbages and other winter storage crops.
Container gardens produce personal-sized salads from a window box or a sack of potatoes from a half whiskey barrel, and bring the benefit of gardening to apartment-dwellers or those who can't tend a large garden plot. Raised beds combined with intensive gardening methods and vertical trellising generate maximum yields and a dazzling variety of vegetables using minimum ground space. Traditional flat-ground garden rows allow for swift hoeing or use of motorized tillers for efficient larger-scale production.
Bigger gardens do not necessarily yield the most benefits--especially for gardeners too harried to keep up with a garden larger than they can handle. Start small to get the maximum stress relief out of your garden, and add to it only as your garden skills and comfort-level grow. Even the tiniest garden--perhaps a cherry tomato plant in a container surrounded by colorful lettuce and basil plants--yields rich rewards in taste and satisfaction.
Limiting your garden to a rigid time-frame from Memorial Day to Labor Day can diminish the benefits and detract from the rewards. Think of gardening as a year-round hobby, with some tending and some harvesting done nearly every week. In cold climes, move your garden indoors in winter with microgreens on a windowsill or hardy crops in a cold frame or hoop house. Think ahead to plant crops you'll eat three to six months from planting time and soon you'll experience the benefit of grocery shopping from your own vegetable garden.