Karen Jonaitis

Splendido resident Karen Jonaitis is a lifelong gardener who enjoys volunteering at Tohono Chul (shown above) as well as growing plants in the yard of her Villa Home.

A multitude of research shows that those who spend time planting or cultivating a garden can end up reaping a variety of health benefits for the mind, body, and spirit. This is good news for avid gardeners in the Tucson area, many of whom are transplants themselves from the Midwest, East Coast, and other parts of the United States. 

One of these transplants (though a Tucson resident for 27 years), is Karen Jonaitis, who lives with her husband Chuck at Splendido, an all-inclusive community in Oro Valley for those 55 and better. 

Growth of a Gardener

“I started gardening when I was very small,” says Karen. “My family had victory gardens during World War II, and we grew vegetables.” From the time she was a newlywed, Karen always kept flower beds and often grew vegetables as well, as she and Chuck lived in various homes in Minnesota and Illinois.

“But moving out to the desert, I found everything was different,” she recalls. “I never felt so ignorant. I didn’t know any of the plants; we approved a landscape plan for our first home here, and I didn’t know what anything was going to look like. A friend recommended that I take docent training at Tohono Chul, promising that I’d learn everything about the desert. Well, I did—that was 27 years ago!”

In her years as a docent at Tohono Chul, Karen has led tours, done outreach in the greater community, and provided hands-on help with pruning, cleaning up, and planting seeds. “I enjoy the physical part of it—digging holes and hauling hoses, getting my hands in the dirt,” she says.

The Jonaitises moved to Splendido four years ago. “We got a Villa Home, which has a yard, and I have some things planted in pots and planted some vines, including passion flowers and honeysuckle,” says Karen. 

Splendido has plans to plant an herb garden in raised beds for use by the culinary staff, and Karen is on the planning committee for the project. “Raised beds work very well in this area,” she says.  

A Bouquet of Health Benefits

Multiple studies show that gardening is an ideal way to cultivate good health:  

Stress relief: Dutch researchers found that gardening fights stress better than other hobbies. In their study, participants who gardened outdoors reported better moods and tested for lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who spent time reading. 

Physical activity: Gardening may not burn a lot of calories, but activities like digging and weeding are wonderful forms of low-impact exercise. The stretching and repetitive movements are good for those who may not be able to exercise more vigorously.

Healthy diet: A University of Florida study found that people who learn to garden as children or young adults are far more likely to eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and far more likely to enjoy them. 

Mood boost: Researchers found that people diagnosed with depression who spent six hours a week gardening showed a measurable improvement in their depressive symptoms; this trend continued for three months after the gardening program stopped.

Dementia fighter: One study tracked more than 2,800 older adults for 16 years and found that physical activity could reduce incidence of future dementia. Specifically, daily gardening reduced subjects’ risk of dementia by 36%! 

An assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder believes gardening can boost mood and physical health because it exposes people to a harmless bacteria found in soil. Christopher Lowry, PhD, has found that the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae increases serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood, similar to antidepressant drugs. Lowry believes that early humans were constantly exposed to M. vaccae and its absence from our environment affects our immune systems. Reintroducing the bacteria could potentially help alleviate inflammation and other issues. 

Regardless of this hypothesis, there’s no denying that gardening makes us feel good. “I love being outdoors and I love to watch the plants grow under our care,” says Karen. “And of course, there’s nothing better than the taste of fresh from the garden vegetables!”

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