Antidepressants? Grow Your Own!

A few years back I witnessed an unforgettable sight. Having just led a contingent of Asian visitors around Burpee’s Fordhook Farm floral display gardens, I noticed one man remained standing outside the garden, rocking back and forth, his eyes closed. Concerned, I asked him if everything was okay. “I … am … happy”, he replied simply, lost in rapture. In his honor, we have named it the “Happiness Garden”.

I mention this episode because our country is right now in the midst of an epidemic of unhappiness. If Walt Whitman were to hear America singing today, he might hear a low, moaning blues rather than “strong melodious songs”, America has a case of the blues—and one of epidemic proportions.

Depression is one of America’s leading health problems, accounting for half the costs in mental health today. America’s new Great Depression exacts a high cost, with lost productivity and medical expenses adding up to $83 billion annually.

Since 1988, the use of antidepressants by Americans 18 and older has increased fivefold. Ten percent of Americans are currently on antidepressants, filling 245 million prescriptions designed to boost their mood at a cost of 8 billion dollars. Still another 20 percent of Americans who are depressed receive no treatment.

Antidepressants do not work for all, and are apt to lose their efficacy over time. Better than nothing, you might say? Studies have shown that for one-quarter of patients, a sugar pill proved more effective than the prescription medicine.

What accounts for this tidal wave of depression? Along with genetic factors and one’s biology, experts point to environmental factors, the stress of modern life, the rapid pace of technological change, and our increasingly sedentary modern lifestyle.

Other observers believe that the depression is currently over diagnosed. Another school of thought contends that what’s causing the depression epidemic are … antidepressants. The notion is that while the medications can be effective for the short term, they can worsen symptoms over the long term due to neuroadaptation on the part of the brain.

Lifestyle factors surely play a part, and depression is frequently coupled with being overweight. Americans currently spend seven hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen—an activity—or non-activity—which surely does little to boost their physical or mental health. Mesmerized before their screens, social and family life are sacrificed to a solitary realm offering little in the way of challenge or stimulation.

So what’s a depressed person to do? I’m happy to note that there’s light at the end of this depressing tunnel. It’s recognized that milder cases of depression can be a number of ways for which no prescription is required, including yoga, meditation and a daily dose of mild exercise.

The best clinic for treating depression might be right outside your door: the garden. According to Sir Richard Thompson, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, working in the garden frequently proves a more effective antidote than expensive pharmaceuticals.

The garden provides visual stimulation, mood-boosting sunlight—and a realm of effects you won’t find sitting before your computer screen: fragrance, flavor, color, beauty—not to mention a harvest of the freshest herbs and vegetables and vase-ready blooms. And scientists have found that M. vaccae, a benign soil bacterium, has antidepressant effects.

Being in the gardening business, I meet thousands of gardeners a year. You cannot imagine a group of more spirited, upbeat, enthusiastic and contented people. They are invariably fit, with blooming color in their cheeks and sunlit sparkle in their eyes. Whether men or women, young or old, urban, suburban or rural, their therapy is the same: the Happiness Garden.


A slightly different version of this essay appeared as an op/ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 24, 2013.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 24th, 2013 at 1:30 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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29 Responses to “Antidepressants? Grow Your Own!”

  1. Ruth Barkan said:

    I wholeheartedly concur. I know from personal experience that the simple act of getting one’s hands in the dirt is one of the best ways of dealing when life is going to hell in a handbasket. Oh, that and hauling rock.

    • George said:

      Hauling rock, indeed. That should be the name of a beer. No, not—too many cute beer names. Thanks much for posting.

  2. b kessler said:

    Thank you and so true – When I’m playing in the garden, my arthritis is there but I’m so happy I barely notice the aches. I’m 68 and told my Dr. I go to my garden and don’t need pills. When I play my classical music, the joys are tenfold. I’ve gardened since the age of four when my Mother bought me a box of pansies because I loved their faces. I am so lucky!

    • George said:

      Thank you, B. I was introduced to pansies a similar way: my first garden chore was to wash pansies “faces” with a slow-dribbling garden hose. My mother’s idea—it was truly charming of her. I was 5 or 6.

      I have mild arthritis and I find bananas and apples, daily, work miracles for me.

      Thanks again.

  3. Patty said:

    I agree completely. Additionally, the bacteria in soil seems to give health benefits to people who work in the yard. However, I just found out the bunnies ate all of my brocolli and cauliflower, and the deer nipped the tops of my roses. I’m having a panic attack.

    • George said:

      Quick—sow some seeds!

      Seriously, I haven’t heard about the bacterial benefits to humans of soil. Very interesting. Any details? Thanks very much for an amusing post. Come again.

  4. Jan Glass said:

    Watching plants battle for survival makes my problems underwhelming…..

    • George said:

      Absotively, posilutely! Thanks for posting.

  5. Pam said:

    You are so right, George. We know that gardening raises our spirits … and there is empirical evidence: Dr. Jill Litt of the University of Colorado writes that “community gardeners (and in some instances home gardeners) had statistically higher ratings of all psychological, social and health measures, after adjusting for age, educational attainment and neighborhood socioeconomic status.” Here’s the link: http://artsandsciences.colorado.edu/magazine/2011/08/gardens-improve-personal-and-neighborhood-health-team-finds/

    • George said:

      Thanks, Pam. I failed to mention also Jeannette Haviland-Jones. I think she is at Rutgers. Also does great research. Google her. Thanks again.

  6. Barbara Durbin said:

    Truer words have never been spoken in reference to the benefits of gardening. Thank you so very much for writing this

    • George said:

      You’re very welcome, Barbara. Thanks for posting.

  7. Joe Corcoran said:

    George…I could not agree more!!!!!!!!!!!

    I started being serious about gardening 13 years ago, and haven’t stopped since…Still lots to learn, but man what a way to finish the last 1/4 of my life…

    A path worth following!!!

    If you are ever up my way (Cincinnati) come see my slice of Heaven!!! The East End Veterans Memorial Garden…See facebook…

    God bless…

    J

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, J. I love Cincinnati. My grandfather was born in Milford. We do the Welcome Home Garden for the recent vets. Thanks for posting.

  8. Ellen said:

    How true. Your articles always bring a smile of truth, always witty. Thank you for your wisdom.

    • George said:

      Many thanks, Ellen. So happy you enjoy them.

  9. Becky said:

    We love the happiness garden at the Burpee site and I definitely agree that being outside and working in the garden or even just looking at the colors and breathing in the fresh air are a powerful way to find balance in life.

    • George said:

      I’m glad you have had the chance to enjoy our Happiness Garden at Fordhook. Thanks much for visiting as well as for posting.

  10. charles martin said:

    I agree whole hartedly.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Charles. Glad you enjoyed it.

  11. Melanie said:

    I really believe you are on to something here. When I am in my garden I am at peace. Unless of course I have had a bad day and I am taking out my frustrations by hoeing the weeds. Off with their heads! :-)

    • George said:

      Too true! I am in complete agreement. I even extend my wrath to groundhogs. One of the horrid creatures recently put my dog in the hospital. But, of course, I have trapped them and released. Thanks for posting. Please do so again.

  12. The Tree Man of Fallbrook Ca. said:

    Been working outdoors in the horticultural and arbor world for the past 60 years and loving every moment being in contact with nature with all her glory with many more years to come.
    “May the forests be with you and yours”

    • George said:

      Thanks, Tree Man. I just lost a forty year old beech. Almost killed me—which just shows the flip side of my point. Thanks again. “Ball out”.

  13. pat said:

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more. So grounding, such pleasure, always a surprise, so giving to us…as much as we give we get,more really.

    thanks for this,
    Pat
    Cannon Beach, Oregon

    • George said:

      How true, Pat. Thanks for posting.

  14. Marie-Ange said:

    This note concerning depression is absolutely true. I have actually experienced the benefits of gardening sustaining me when I was trully depressed and maybe even on the verge of a nervous break down.
    Be well, Marie-Ange

  15. alda kalberer said:

    In today’s whirlwind lifestyle, my backyard definitely keeps me sane. Love your articles. Alda

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Alda.

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