June 2014
The Magic of Gardening

Harvest for Health

  UAB researcher Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., (back, far left) and Jefferson County Master Gardener volunteers who participated in the pilot Harvest for Health project.

Master Gardeners pair with cancer survivors.

While working in the Jefferson County Extension office, I had the opportunity to work on a pilot project with the University of Alabama at Birmingham pairing Master Gardener volunteers with cancer survivors to improve the survivors’ eating habits and increase their exercise routines. This turned out to be a great project with very good results. The project has grown and is now offered in several counties. Recruiting Master Gardeners was the easy part because they are scattered all over the state, but recruiting cancer survivors has been more challenging. Hopefully, you can help us find participants so please read on for details on the project.

The project is called Harvest for Health and is now an ongoing study at UAB that continues to pair cancer survivors with Master Gardeners from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

"Having a garden may help cancer survivors and their families eat better, get more exercise and become healthier," said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Studies have shown a link between diet and cancer, and between physical activity and cancer. We want to see how gardening affects quality of life of cancer survivors, as well as how it affects their diet and exercise behaviors."

UAB provides tools, seed and seedlings, and will either provide a raised bed in the yard of a survivor’s home or provide EarthBoxes - large gardening containers on wheels - that can be kept on a porch or patio. Master Gardeners visit with the survivors twice a month for one year, offering advice, expertise and suggestions, while answering the questions new gardeners have.

The study is now recruiting people age 65 and older in several areas (especially along the coastal counties and north Alabama) who have been diagnosed with cancer within the past 5 years and have completed their primary therapy (e.g., surgery, radiation or chemotherapy) and who do not raise vegetables already. I assume most of the readers of this article are vegetable gardeners, but you may know of family or friends who are not and might qualify to participate.

"We’re looking for people who don’t already eat five or six servings of fruit or vegetables a day, or those who are not already physically active," Demark-Wahnefried said. "We want to provide this study to survivors who will benefit the most. Besides being a good source of exercise, gardening is a good way to learn about healthy diet and nutrition, and to have some control over what one eats."

The Master Gardeners, who have completed a rigorous certification process from ACES, are all volunteers.

"The volunteers are very excited to be making a difference in the lives of cancer survivors and their families," Demark-Wahnefried explained. "We have plenty of Master Gardeners standing by, but we need more cancer survivors to participate in the therapy."

Participants in the study do not have to go to UAB, but will have two visits from the research team at their home during the course of the project, along with the twice-monthly interactions with the Master Gardeners.

The study is particularly interested in those with the following cancers: bladder, breast (female), cervix, colon and rectum, corpus and uterus, kidney or renal pelvis, Hodgkin lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, oral cavity/pharynx, ovary, prostate, small intestine, soft tissues and thyroid.

The study is funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute. For more information on how to participate, contact study organizers at 205-996-7367 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. '; document.getElementById('cloak6080').innerHTML += ''+addy_text6080+'<\/a>'; //--> or call me at the Cullman County Extension office at 256-737-9386.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.