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Functional Gardens for Food and Fitness

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Years ago, Australian and UK homes sported large backyards and fine gardens. These gardens promoted outdoor activity and allowed for home owners to enjoy gardening, get amongst the great outdoors and unwind. Today, these gardens are giving way to urban sprawl and urbanisation as new housing developments rob nations of valuable farming land and make developers wealthy.

In the UK, the Government estimates that some 2 million homes have no gardens and by 2020 this is expected to rise to 2.6 million. In Australia, urban sprawl and new housing developments are required due to population growth and immigration levels. The National Institute of Labour Studies estimates that Sydney and Melbourne will need 430,000 ha of new land to keep up with current demands. Agricultural output of fruit, nuts, oil and pig meat will suffer as a result as productive land is lost.

The cost, however could be far greater than just primary production, especially as the girths of Australians and individuals that live in the UK become larger. According to Monash Obesity and Diabetes Institute (MODI), Australia is ranked as one of the fattest nations in the world. Obesity has more than doubled over the last 20-years. Cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and chronic kidney disease (CKD) are estimated to add to a quarter of the burden of disease in Australia and approximately two thirds of all deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO), estimate that globally there are some one billion people who are overweight with some 400 million of these being obese. WHO predict that by 2015 there will be more than 2.3 billion overweight people globally.

While large homes on small blocks allow for maintenance free living, they don’t allow for activity. This is not only adding to obesity levels and promoting lifestyle illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, but it also adds to higher levels of stress.

Home gardens can be used for rest and relaxation, allow individuals to enjoy the sun and increase their levels of vitamin K, and they reduce the impact of global warming.  In addition, they can also be used to produce healthy, organically grown produce, and as a place for exercise.

The Functional Garden

Matt Leacy, Director of Landart Landscapes and co-host of Channel Nine’s Garden Gurus, has designed gardens for Backyard Blitz, Domestic Blitz and Random Acts of Kindness.

Leacy is a landscape designer that believes a garden is ‘good for the soul’. His idea of a functional garden is a place that is used productively for enjoyment on many different levels.

“There are many opinions out there in relation to the definition of a functional garden,” said Leacy. My belief is that it is a place that not only does produces food and generates compost to feed the garden, completing the full circle, but it is also a place where you can read, eat, play, entertain, swim, swing, exercise and just sit under a tree and relax. It is a place where everyone in the family has favourite areas to enjoy, both on their own and with family,” he said.

Leacy, a qualified horticulturalist and landscape construction and designer, says that he has designed a few functional gardens for food and fitness in his career. Most have been based on Calisthenics, but he has design one that had weights and rowing machines incorporated into it.

“The fitness side of the garden can happen just about anywhere,” said Leacy. Sometimes even down the side of the house.”

“I like to design areas in the garden that are able to be used as space for calisthenics, but by looking at them you would never guess that that is what they are used for,” he said. “This can be a bar or a tree branch for chin/pull ups, a bench seat for step-ups, sit-ups and leg raises, a grassed area for burpees, squats and lunges, and if you are lucky enough to have one, a pool, which can provide the best form of low impact cardio exercise around.”

“In relation to food, the placement of your veggie garden is best facing north or where it will get a minimum of five hours sun a day,” said Leacy. “I like mine to get eight hours of sun.  With veggies, the more sun, the more taste.

“If you’re not that into gardening or you’re just starting out, I recommend only growing veggies and herbs that you like to eat on most days and foods that you know how to use,” he said. “This way your interest remains high  and you are more likely to tend and care for your garden.”

Leacy believes that a functional garden, which is planned well, can provide you will all of your nutritional and fitness needs, without you having to look elsewhere.

“It can provide you with all the nutrition you need, if grown correctly. The only thing you may need to do is make the odd trip to the butcher,” said Leacy.

“If knowing that the food you grow is completely organic and 95% cheaper is not enough for you, then simply do it for the taste,” he said. “Once you have tasted the difference I can assure you it will be hard to buy from the supermarket again. Keeping in mind that for most veggies the more sun they get the tastier they are.”

Leacy recommends growing a variety of fruits and vegetables.

“Most fruits are full of nutrition and by growing any you can’t go wrong. My favourites are avocado, apples and grapefruit,” said Leacy. “With veggies, I believe in growing a mix of colours. This is the best for providing nutrition across the board,” he said. “Go with an extra few with dark green colouring. My top ten are broccoli, carrots, capsicum, peas, baby spinach, beets, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, and cauliflower.”

A functional garden, according to Leacy, keeps you fit and active.

“This type of garden is good all-round for your health,” said Leacy. “Spending time in the garden keeps you away from technology and enables you to get some vitamin D from the sun. Plus, gardening is a great way to keep in shape, you will be amazed at how many muscles you actually use.”

“Overall, I feel a garden should be an extension of ourselves,” he said. “In our climate, with the right landscape design, it is possible to use the garden all year round. The more time we spend outside the better off we will be. Remember the more food you grow the lighter your carbon footprint will be. Once you start, you can’t stop because your wallet will feel heavier and you will feel lighter.”

“Don’t forget to educate your kids as you go. Teach them where their food actually comes from and that it isn’t grown on a supermarket shelf.”

Getting the Most Out of Your Functional Garden in Terms of Fitness

Mal Pace, a fitness and lifestyle coach and personal trainer, believes that a functional garden is about growing veggies in the backyard and then using the surroundings for exercise.

“I used my parent’s place to grow vegetables and then I would do chin-ups of the pergola and push-ups on the lawn,” said Pace. “You name it, I did it.”

“From a food point of view, I’d recommend growing lots of organic fruit and vegetables in your functional garden,” he said. “And yes, I mean properly organically grown, with no non-natural fertilisers and sprays.”

“From a fitness point of view, we need to set up the yard so that we can work as many of the muscles in the body as possible,” said Pace. “At the same time, we want to be able to cardiovascular exercises.”

Pace, believes that any garden has the potential to be functional.

“Obviously size of available space will play a big part. If you have too small a garden, you just won’t be able to get everything in,” he said. “I don’t feel that a functional garden needs to be planned by a professional landscaper. In fact I’d suggest that someone who is trained in the nutrition and fitness industries would perhaps be better suited to do the planning.”

“I just believe the knowledge of  someone who knows about nutrition and training would probably be more of valuable than someone who is just trained in landscaping,” said Pace. “This is not to undervalue the benefits of a landscaper. In fact, what would be ideal is to have both. n have your Nutrition and fitness consultant working closely with a (separate) landscaper.”

To gain the most amount of benefit from your functional garden says Pace, you need to focus on planning and variety.

“The focus should be on two things, planning your garden so that you can get a large variety of fruit and vegetables from it,” he said. “Doing so, will maximise the total number of nutrients that you can obtain from the garden. In fact, if you have enough variety, you could become totally self-sufficient. No more trips to the grocery store,” said Pace. “A tip here is to grow lots of different coloured veggies. This is because the different colours represent dominance in certain vitamins or minerals. For example, green often means high iron content. Reds and oranges generally mean high vitamin A and Beta Carotene content.”

“The second thing is to set up your garden so that you get the most variety when using it for fitness training, think efficiency so you can fit as much in the given space you have,” said Pace. “Any good fitness training program should contain some resistance training so that you can train all the muscles of the body, not just some.”

“A good functional training garden would include, a bench or chair to do step-ups. This is a good start for the cardiovascular,” said Pace. “You’d definitely be wanting a chin-up bar, a children’s swing can serve well, if not a truss that supports your balcony, this will also work.”

“For strength training you can use a hanging a rope over a low branch,” he said. “If your backyard is big enough, jog around it. If you’ve got some serious size rocks in your garden, work on your strength by doing a little rock climbing. And if you’ve got the luxury of some serious space, nothing beats a good game of touch footy to get the heart rate up.”

Pace believes that ‘fresh is best’ when it comes to food, especially when supermarkets store food for months and use pesticides.

“There’s nothing fresher than picking food from your own backyard,” said Pace. “Nutritionally, pulling it from your own garden will generally beat store-bought any day.”

“Firstly, store-bought foods usually have been stored, sometimes for months,” said Pace. “The quality of the nutrients in the fruit and vegetable a reduced over time, even if they’re kept cool. Basically, the longer time that has passed between picking and eating, the greater loss of nutrients.”

“Secondly, if you grow food at home, you have direct control over how much, and what type, of insecticides, pesticides and fertilisers you use,” he said. “Less is best in this case. And if you chose to grow them organically, better still.”

“The perfect scenario, said Pace, would be truly organically grown produce that is picked fresh at the time you intend to eat them. This would yield produce with the highest nutritional value. Especially when you consider an apple that was grown overseas that has been stored in a cold container and shipped over here, then put into storage again and has been sprayed with substances that are full of chemicals and then it eventually makes its way into your shopping basket. There’s no comparison really,” he said.

Nutritionally speaking, Pace believes guava, grapefruit and watermelon are rich in value.

“Guava and grapefruit seem to be two contenders for the top role. Although watermelon has a lot of water in it, hence the name, it is surprisingly dense with nutrients — 14 different nutrients in fact,” said Pace. “Cantaloupe is another that regularly pops up. It boasts over 20 different micronutrients. One of my personal favourites is the good old banana,” he said.

“However, what can be grown in a functional garden, will depend on the climate that the garden is in,” said Pace. “So, what can be grown easily in the upper mountains of Tibet, may not be so easy to grow in the middle of Sydney. But, if we take Sydney as the “case study”, in terms of nutrition, my top 10 pick would be snow peas, climbing beans, broad beans, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce, garlic, spring onions, and capsicum,” he said.

A functional garden offers people a chance to take control of their health says Pace, and absorb some vitamin D and escape from some of life’s stressors.

“Someone who is taking control of their health, someone who is proactive about bettering themselves and their wellbeing would enjoy a functional garden,” he said. “Science now shows that those that exercise are generally happier people than those that are sedentary,  as are those that take time out of their day to relax and unwind. Many of my clients actually use exercise itself as a stress-relief mechanism.”

“Those that tend to be higher achievers, but also know how to relax, would recognise the benefits of a functional garden,” said Pace. “Being one to choose nutritious vegetables and fruits is often correlated with a person’s personality.”

“However, the opposite is also true. We can “nurture our nature” and educate ourselves on topics so that we change our views, and thus our actions,” he said. “The reading of an article, such as this one, may be the very trigger to a whole new outlook on life, health, diet and nutrition.”

“Additional benefits of a functional garden, apart from the ability to exercise, is well, vitamin D for one,” said Pace. “We all need vitamin D. And one of the best sources of vitamin D is that big yellow ball in the sky called the sun. We should be exposing our skin to about 10 minutes of sun a day. A garden that is pleasant to laze in or stroll around in, whilst soaking up a few rays, would be grand,” he said.

“Tranquillity would be another thing that a functional garden would have,” said Pace. “The ability to escape the stresses of everyday life is paramount. And if we can do this in our own back yard, great. The backyard should be conducive to relaxation. A hammock suspended near a pond may be just the ticket to drop those stressed-induced cortisol levels,” he said.

“If you are thinking of a pool, then just a few words on this,” said Pace. “If you have a pool that is large enough to do laps in, then swimming is great exercise, the only concern I have is the chlorine,” he said. “Most pools these days are chlorinated, to at least some degree, which is why I generally advise my clients to swim in salt water where possible. If you don’t have the ability to use a salt water pool, try and cut the amount of chlorine you use down to an absolute minimum. Consider other disinfecting mechanisms like ozone treatment.”

“The reason for trying to avoid chlorine is that we’re now finding that chlorine is even more toxic to humans than we thought,” said Pace. “Chlorine forms by-products such as Trihalomethanes,  Haloacetates and Haloacetonitriles. The research is starting to show that regular contact with these by-products does all kind of nasties to us and our skin, and may predispose us to an increased cancer risk,” he said.

Michelle Nazoff, director of Nazafit and a nutritionist who is inspiring people to get fit from within, is a natural body building champion who won a beautiful garden award in Western Australia.

Nazoff feels that a functional garden for food and fitness should combine many elements to make it harmonious.

“Recycled functional water gardens are optimal for health and fitness as it allows us to grow the ultimate ‘Live Food’ in our very own backyard,” said Nazoff. “Picking fresh live produce for our daily meals is better than anything  as the nutrient density of the food is at its highest,” she said.

“High nutrient density is key the for optimal health and wellness. Our bodies are built on micro nutrition– vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants — these nutrients are what get us fit from within,” said Nazoff. “Plus, when you grow your own fruits and vegetables you know exactly what the growing conditions are, if any pesticides or chemicals are used and you can allow the fruits and vegetables to ripen fully before being harvested,” she said.

“All fruits are beneficial in the diet, but the top ones we use in our Nazafit Live Food eating plans are apples, avocados, banana’s, strawberries, kiwi fruit, mangos, blueberries  and grape fruit,” said Nazoff. “My top 10 vegies to grow in a functional recycled water garden are kale, watercress, spinach, silver beet, broccoli, capsicums, beans, herbs of all kinds and collard greens,” she said.

“I believe that a functional garden offers an amazing lifestyle that is soothing and rewarding,” said Nazoff. “There is nothing better than growing your own food, picking your own food and preparing your own food from scratch that is super nutrient for you and your family,” she said. “It is very rewarding.”

The Nutritional Benefits of a Functional Garden

 Rachel Jeffery, an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) says that a functional garden for food and fitness should be well prepared and laid out so that you can get the  best nutritional benefits from it.

“Your garden should suit your needs and lifestyle,” said Jeffery. “There is no use planting out a whole garden if you have not prepared the soil well and you do not have time to maintain and nurture it,” she said.

“If you are in an apartment or rental, having little space or it not being your permanent home, then I suggest using large pots to plant tomatoes, capsicums, lemons, limes, strawberries, chillies and herbs in,” said Jeffery. “However, if you have plenty of space and are settled, setting up a garden bed or small hot house may be possible,” she said. “In a well established spot you can grow root vegetables including potatoes, carrots as well as leafy greens including bok choy, spinach and a variety of lettuces. Large trees including apples, pears and stone-fruit including apricots, peaches and nectarines would also be suitable.”

A functional kitchen garden will be able to provide you with fruits, vegetables and herbs all-year-round,” said Jeffery. “They not only make the garden look pretty, but they also may save you money, as well as being very nutritious.”

“Fruits and veggies provide good sources of fibre for bowel health, vitamin C  for strong bones, Foliate for cell health, and vitamin A for eye and skin health, as well as Iron for strong blood, and they generally have little or no salt, fat or sugar content,” she said.

“Remember to plant some herbs as well,” said Jeffery. “This includes parsley, mint, basil, chives, rosemary and oregano as all are really easy to grow,” she said. “Plus, small amounts provide vitamin C and Iron. They are not only good for you, but also will add a zing to meals.”

Jeffery also recommends growing your own produce over store bought.

“If you are able to grow some of your own fruits and vegetables that is great and will potentially save you some money too,” said Jeffery. “Choose veggies for different seasons so that you have a range through the year. Beans, broccoli, cabbage and leaks are good Winter veggies,  tomatoes, zucchini and spinach in Spring,  beetroots, carrots and cucumbers in Summer and Garlic, parsnip and silver beat in Autumn,” she said. “The same applies for fruits, apples, pears and grapefruit in Winter, mandarins in Spring, berries and stone fruits in Summer and grapes, quinces and lemons in Autumn.”

“You may find there are fruits and veggies not suited to where you live or the space you have, for example bananas and eggplants are best grown in the warmer tropical regions, where as carrots, cabbage and broccoli are better suited to cooler climates,” said Jeffery. “So, choose fruits are veggies that grown best where you live. Ask the local nursery to help you choose the right ones,” she said.

“Where you cannot grow certain fruits and veggies yourself or they are not suited to where you are, ensure you buy these as fresh fruits and veggies from the store and use them within a few days,” said Jeffery. “Fruits and vegetables stored for long periods will begin to lose nutrients over time.”

“Eat the fruits and vegetables bought within the same week. Choose fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of bright colours (green, red, yellow, orange) and these will also provide a wide variety of nutrients,” she said.

In terms of what fruits and vegetables are the best to grow and give you the most amount of nutrition, Jeffery suggests growing the following in your functional garden.

“All fruits are good, but some that are full of nutrients and pretty easy to grow in your garden are avocadoes, which are rich in monounsaturated fat (good fats), B-group vitamins and vitamin E. Please note that avocadoes do take a long time to fruit, so you may want to look for a mature fruiting tree rather than planting from scratch,” said Jeffery. “Oranges, lemons and limes are a fantastic source of vitamin C and oranges also provide good amounts of fibre and some minerals. Varieties are available all year round,” she said. “Tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C, fibre and the best source of lycopenes. Lycopenes are an antioxidant and can help reduce the risk of certain cancers.  Strawberries are full of vitamin C and Folic acid. They grow well in pots or in a garden bed.”

“Vegetables have little or no fat, salt and sugar and they are high in fibre and provide wonderful nutrients including, fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E and B-group vitamins,” said Jeffery. “Broccoli  is rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, foliate and fibre, so it really is one of the super foods. Capsicum is a great source of vitamin C and ½ a small capsicum can provide your daily vitamin C needs,” she said. “Carrots  have highest concentration of Beta Carotene of all veggies, which is converted to vitamin A.  Chillies are full of potassium, vitamin C and fibre. They will add a spark to any dish and are really easy to grow in pots. Spinach  is full of antioxidants, vitamin C, Beta Carotene and vitamin E. It is full of Iron, but needs to be eaten with other high vitamin C foods to aid the conversion into an absorbable form the body can use. Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes contain B-group vitamins, phosphorus, potassium and a good source of vitamin C. Peas and Snow Peas have good amounts of vitamin B1 and B2, but eat soon after picking or buying, and do not overcook as the nutrients are lost easily.”

“It is also important to consider those wonderful green herbs including parsley, basil, chives, dill, oregano, rosemary. They are full of vitamin and minerals adding a boost to any meal they are added to,” said Jeffery.

“Overall, have a large variety if fruits and veggies in your diet,” said Jeffery. “The more varied and brightly coloured fruits, veggies and herbs you have eaten daily the more nutrients you will be providing your body for good health,” she said. “Ensure you are having at least 2.5 cups of veggies or salad equivalent daily and 2-3 pieces of fruit. Spread fruits and veggies through all meals from breakfast, lunch, dinner and all your snacks.”

“Remember to chose fruits and veggies in season, this will ensure you are saving money and buying the best quality produce,” said Jeffery.

Gabrielle Maston, a clinical dietitian and exercise physiologist, who holds a nutrition and science honours degree in clinical dietetics agrees that a functional garden for food and fitness needs to be mindful of growing seasons and that produce should be picked and then eaten to gain the most amount of nutritional value.

“When planning a functional garden you need to take into consideration the season,” said Maston. “Not all plants and fruits will grow all-year-round. Use veggies, herbs and fruit that you typically use in your day-to-day cooking,” she said. “Some ideas for winter include spinach, leek, garlic, and lettuce, all, of which, are stable ingredients in every day dishes. Sweet potato is a great low gi-starch that will grow almost all year round. Summer veggies may include basil, blueberries, capsicum, chilli, corn and egg plant.”

“Using veggies and fruit that are freshly picked and used in cooking or to eat immediately provides the highest amount of nutrients, antioxidants and active enzymes,” said Maston. “The food has better quality higher levels of B-vitamins, beta carotene and vitamin C and often tastes a lot better because of this. When fruits and veggies are picked and transported, like most super market produce, over time their vitamin and folic acid levels are reduced. This is due to air and light exposure.”

The other benefits of growing your own food says Maston is you avoid ingesting chemicals.

“If you have the time then yes home grown veggies are great and packed full of nutrients. The produce will last longer and be more cost effective, reducing food waste and helping the environment,” said Maston. “It’s also a cheap way of eating organic foods. The benefits being no herbicide or pesticides are used for growing,” she said. “The evidence is not conclusive on the benefits of eating organic foods, however trying to reduce chemical load on our system is always a good idea where possible for general health.”

Some of the most nutritious foods are slow growing says Maston, so it may be an idea to grow a selection.

“Avocados, apples, apricots are some of the best fruits to grow, however they maybe the most nutritious but they take years and years to grow,” said Maston. “Some 12-years for an avocado tree to bear fruit. Not ideal for a quick functional garden,” she said. “Strawberries, rock melon, water melon and grapes may not be as nutritionally superior, but you will get fruit within 6-months to a year, so may be a better option in the short term.”

“For veggies, grow spinach. It is easy to grow packed full of iron, magnesium, vitamin c and foliate, said Maston. ” I also suggest chilli, as the red pigmentation in the chilli can stimulate metabolism and is high in vitamin C. Garlic is a natural immune booster and good for digestive health. Tomatoes are high in lycopene. It’s an antioxidant that is heart protective,” she said.  Capsicum is a natural metabolism booster and high in vitamin C, brussel sprouts are high in the antioxidant zeaxanthin, which is good for reducing retinal damage and protects the eyes from macular degeneration, and broccoli contains flavonoids like beta-carotene cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Studies have shown that these compounds help protect from prostate, colon, urinary bladder, pancreatic, and breast cancers. I also suggest planting onions because they are high in vitamin C, B6, biotin, chromium. These help with blood sugar control and appetite regulation. Beetroot as it is high in foliate, iron, potassium and vitamin C and great for women’s health particularly during pregnancy. And alfalfa sprouts as they have a high sapoinin content which protects the immune system.”

“And remember, that a functional garden will only be “organic” if NO fertilizers and chemicals are used. Make sure if you use these types of products that you thoroughly wash the fruit or vegetable before eating,” said Maston. “This reduces your chances of ingesting nasty substances.”

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