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Therapy in the Dirt: Why gardening is a psychological upper

Feeling cooped up? Cabin feverish? Climbing the walls? You are so not alone. The days may be lengthening, but frigid weather still puts the kibosh on romping in the borders; average lows this time of year hover around 32 degrees, and it’s possible that a blizzard could dump a foot or more of the white stuff as late as mid-April. After six merciless months of confinement, it stands to reason that sanity-wise, you’re hanging by a thread.

That’s why God invented spring (late spring, actually), and it can’t come too soon, especially for those of us—and we are legion—who are caught in the teeth of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a mental malady having everything to do with latitude. In New England, where winter daylight is in short supply, over 20 percent of the population suffers from mild-to-serious depression, whereas in balmy Florida—i.e., closer to the equator, with ample daylight pretty much year-round—it’s a scant one percent. Small wonder, then, that as soon as things warm up around here, gardeners, with yelps of joy, will gallop outside every chance they get.

OK, no surprises there. Everyone knows that gardening, the number-one outdoor leisure activity in the United States, is a psychological upper. But the reasons why this is so may not be immediately apparent. One theory is that when sunshine is limited, as in winter, the biological clock—which regulates mood, energy levels, and the ability to concentrate—slows down, with vexatious results (viz. crankiness, lethargy, wool-gathering). The opposite is true in summer, when prolonged sunshine “resets” the biological clock, thereby restoring our vim and vivacity.

Just being in a garden seems to have salutary effects, according to a study conducted at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Investigators measured the heart rate and blood pressure of 137 visitors, both before and after their visit. The longer visitors lingered in the garden, the more their blood pressure fell.

But speculation and observation aren’t hard evidence as to the mechanics of this mirth-making phenomenon. It’s not genius material to say that foraging in the flowers banishes the blues. It’s the scientific how of it—that is, what exactly causes this chirpiness—which has long been a mystery.

All that changed in 2007 with the publication, in the journal Neuroscience, of the startling findings of a team of researchers at the University of Bristol in England. Based on experiments with mice, the scientists discovered that a harmless soil organism called Mycobacterium vaccae, when injected into the rodents, increased serotonin levels in the brain, producing an antidepressant effect.

Neuroscientist Christopher Lowry, lead researcher in the study, and his colleagues concluded that being exposed to the bacterium, and its mood-elevating properties, may well be the chief reason that gardeners—who are constantly digging in the dirt—are so very jolly. (A germ. Who knew?)

But that’s not all. Since M. vaccae is also to be found in the air, in water sources, and on vegetables, it follows that simple activities such as ambling in a park—witness the Cleveland Botanical Garden study—or wading in a stream, or consuming home-grown beets, likewise can perk up one’s state of mind. (This could also explain why, according to various studies, there’s less mental illness in rural areas than in cities.)

Most gardeners know from experience the extent to which a dose of weeding at the end of a difficult day is just what the doctor ordered; the peacefulness of it, the palliative monotony, the losing track of time, melts away stress and eases the troubled mind. Put another way, you could say that gardening does the work of tranquilizers, but without the side effects.

In other words, gardening is therapeutic and has been recognized as such, around the globe, throughout history. Here in the U.S., gardening has been used as a form of psychological treatment for over 200 years, leading to a branch of behavioral science known as horticultural therapy. In 1798, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (and signatory of the Declaration of Independence), found that “digging in the garden” helped mentally ill patients to recover from their disorders. In the 1940s, horticultural therapy was used in veterans hospitals to care for returning servicemen who were traumatized during World War II. And in 1955, Michigan State University became the first institution to confer a graduate degree in horticultural therapy.

Today, horticultural therapy is employed in mental health facilities across the country. Such a facility is Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, where a gardening program was developed to give patients who are medically stable, but not yet ready to go home, the life skills they will need to function at work, and within their families. Among these skills is communicating effectively with others, learning to become responsible, and managing their own lives.

The program, called “Let’s Get Growing,” is headed up by Gail Zaremba, a master gardener and horticultural therapist who earned her certification at the New York Botanical Garden’s continuing education department. “Gardening is very creative, very sensual, very life-affirming,” she says. “It’s so easy to be successful, which is extremely important to the self-esteem of patients.”

To guarantee that success, instead of having a traditional garden, which could be overwhelming, Zaremba established a container garden where patients plant 30 large pots with a wide range of vegetables and herbs, such as tomatoes, zucchini, thyme, and lavender. “The residents get to touch, smell, and taste the plants,” she continues. “Late in the season, they see the fruits of their labors—harvesting, cooking, and eating the very vegetables they’ve grown. This is a real team effort. It’s so rewarding to watch the residents get better—they blossom while they’re growing. You literally see the sparkle come back into their lives.”

This seasonal blossoming is equally true for those who love nothing more than playing in the dirt, but who, because the days are still shorter than the nights, may continue to be in a light-deprived funk. (That’s me. At least, it was.)

On this score, I’m thrilled to report, there’s a quick fix for what ails us: a light box, which mimics natural light but filters out harmful UV rays. Last fall, a psychiatrist friend suggested I purchase such a device, which cost around $130 and is roughly the size of a computer monitor. I placed it on my desk in the vicinity of my face, turned it on each morning for the recommended 10 minutes, et voila! Three days later I was jauntiness itself, filled with vigor and optimism, and, for the first time since the summer, I felt like a normal person. I haven’t missed a day since.

Gotta say, the box has been my salvation; now, I can face the winter without dread. And then, when Memorial Day rolls around, I can put the light box away, go outside, plunge my hands in the soil, and resume my favorite form of therapy—gardening. It’s free. It’s reliable. It works. I ask you: how great is that?

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