Green fingers and health; can horticulture facilitate better health behaviours? – Catherine Norton RD, Phd.

Over the last 20 years, dozens of studies have shown that working in a garden, walking in a garden, even looking at a garden from afar have tangible, measurable benefits.

Gardening, however, is often seen as a hobby for retirees and not something that younger generations are too enthused about.  Researchers at the University of Limerick, in collaboration with a local primary school are currently investigating the role of a school-based gardening programme in influencing children’s knowledge, attitudes and habits regarding fruit and vegetable consumption. We all accept that regular consumption of a wide range of fruit, vegetables and salads is good for us, but could participation in school garden activities nudge youngsters towards attainment of these healthy eating guidelines earlier?

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that experiential learning of practical skills related to food, such as gardening and horticulture, can play an important role in improving food engagement. School gardens are an experiential learning approach which involves gardening classes in isolation or combination with cooking classes, nutrition education, and integration of garden-related learning into the curriculum, for example, through science experiments. They provide a ‘hands on’ experience of planting, caring for and harvesting produce, through which children learn actively. School gardening has risen in popularity due to their benefits for a range of health and well-being outcomes. Several studies have shown that school gardening can increase children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables, which is attributed to repeated exposure to and opportunities to taste a variety of different fruit and vegetables during gardening programmes. Our current project aims to assess the influence of access to an outdoor classroom and gardening activities to improve fruit and vegetable knowledge, attitudes, and habits, of primary school children.

Two different groups of student researchers are involved in this project. Four Year 3 Sports Science students are reviewing, refining, and validating questionnaires (Module SS4035 Fundamental concepts of human research) to produce research informed, practical, age-appropriate questionnaires. These questionnaires will subsequently be used by Year 4 students (Module SS4071-78 Final Year Project) in Spring 2023. The consenting primary school students in the gardening group will have access to the school garden and will have experiential learning in sowing, cultivating, and harvesting (and tasting!) their own produce over an 11-week period.  A control group of students will not have this addition to the regular school curriculum and will allow the research team to assess the impact of the intervention.

This research aligns well with several societal goals as well as the WHO sustainable development goals – reduce waste, healthy food for all, sustainable living. We hope to report our findings in April of next year at the Sport Science Presentations of their capstone projects. Watch this space!

If you would like to try to GYO (grow your own) the University of Limerick has a roof top garden for anyone interested from novice to expert. There are also fantastic recipes for seasonal produce available here.


Catherine Norton is a registered dietitian, accredited performance nutritionist, lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition and course director for the MSc Sports Performance in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department, UL. Catherine is also vice chair of the Healthy UL Steering Group and Leads the Healthy Eating Sub-group.

Contact: Follow on twitter: @NortonNutrition

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