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Why my South Philly urban garden made me want to get up in the morning

My first stop is no longer the coffeepot.

Urban gardens  make people happier, research shows.
Urban gardens make people happier, research shows.Read moreChris Carrington

I spend a lot (probably too much) of time at home.

As a freelance writer, most of my days used to begin with a casual wake-up initiated by my internal alarm clock and a sluggish relocation from my bed to the kitchen table. Sometimes, I feared I might need to have the "I know it looks like I haven't moved from this spot since you left, but I promise I have" talk with my roommates.

Basically, I can be a sad excuse for an "adult" who thrives most when there's tangible proof that I have completed a task.

What I needed was something to foster and take care of, something that would inspire me to log off Twitter for a millisecond, something that would make my surroundings more stimulating, but something that was not as high-maintenance as an animal or a small human because, please, I'm not there yet.

What I needed was a garden.

I had been told an assortment of plants would make me feel better. Which is true: there are studies to back this up. Research has shown that not only do public urban green spaces provide ecological benefits, but access to nature in cities has resulted in less stress and improved mental health and "self-reported perception of health." If your neighborhood has more vegetation, studies have shown, your perceived levels of anxiety, depression, and stress are less severe. Results of a study published in 2011 showed that from 1999 to 2008, 7.8 million square feet of vacant lots were greened in Philadelphia and that residents who lived around those newly cultivated areas reported they got more exercise and were less stressed. Gun assaults and vandalism were down in those sections, too.

But as a resident of South Philadelphia, the most vegetation I experience regularly is the occasional weed poking through cracks in the pavement. Sure, the concrete cell that is my backyard is low-maintenance and has a certain ambience when it's illuminated in the evening by string lights. But there is nothing green about it. So I started doing some research on how to turn this space into something uplifting and sustainable. I knew I wanted to grow produce but didn't really care for florals.

Having an idea or a vision helps, according to Chris Carrington, owner and urban garden designer at Philly's City Garden Guru. To ensure her clients get the most out of her plans, she'll first give them a lot of options via photo and slideshow presentations to determine what sort of vegetation she'll work with. Then, based on the space — which may or may not contain grass, concrete, or exist on a rooftop or in a sunroom — she will create a design using containers, pallets, pots, raised beds, and more. (If you do plan on planting in your yard, be sure to test your soil for lead.)

"What's particularly rewarding about doing this," Carrington, a longtime gardener, said, "is it can change [a person's] day-to-day life when they have the space to engage in it actively."

When my kale isn't covered in flies, my little garden is paradise. With the help of my mother, whose thumbs are far greener than my own, I was able to fashion an old wooden pallet into a plot of land by enclosing the back and loading it up with soil. I planted green beans, kale, strawberries, broccoli, cilantro, basil, lettuce, and spinach — and saved a pot for a tomato plant.

Mornings no longer feel like a sleepy voyage to the coffee percolator — I have things to keep alive, after all. The modest corner of my yard devoted to not-totally-thriving-but-not-dead-yet plants offers a sense of accomplishment every time I walk back inside with a handful of greens.

In cities such as Philadelphia, where space and resources for gardening are limited, it's particularly important to highlight the benefits of hanging out near green stuff. The city Parks and Recreation urban agriculture program, Farm Philly, creates and maintains community gardens on parkland and holds a youth junior farmers program that shows kids ages 2 to 12 the benefits of growing their own food. Carrington participates in programs like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Harvest, where local growers yield organic produce for food cupboards, soup kitchens, and for people in high-need neighborhoods. She also works in community gardens.

"What I see in the community gardens are these kids that wouldn't eat vegetables love them because they're growing them," Carrington said "They're watching them grow, it's like their little children."

I never considered that veggies would be good for you even before you eat them prior to my own horticultural venture. I'm no expert, but I'll be planting again next year. My mental state depends on it.