the gardener gets the blues

I have spoken about this awkward and uncomfortable topic briefly on my breast cancer blog sort of, but it’s not something that is easy to talk about. And people tend to be judgmental, gossipy, hyper-critical, or smothering when you tell them.

Winter blues.

I get them. I am not a clinically diagnosed depressant. But I go into occasional mood highs and lows. Seasonal issues. It started after I had finished breast cancer treatment and had been on Tamoxifen for almost a couple of years. I had a hormone driven breast cancer, so treatment and meds essentially suck all hormones out of you.

Now I will be honest and I can say I have known other female relatives who had winter blues. Also known as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s real.


The winter blues are very common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter. You may find yourself feeling more lethargic and down overall. Although you may feel more gloomy than usual, the winter blues typically don’t hinder your ability to enjoy life.

But if your winter blues start permeating all aspects of your life — from work to relationships — you may be facing SAD. SAD is a recurrent type of depression associated with the change in seasons. It typically starts in the fall and persists through the winter months.

SAD is more complicated than wanting to hunker down and stay in for the night. It’s more than simply cursing another blizzard. And it’s more than longing for those first days of spring. Basically, it’s much more than the winter blues…..

The primary culprit of both the winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter. Less natural light can cause the following problems:

Dips in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood
Disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles
Alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with both mood and sleep

Studies show women are affected four times more than men. Light therapy (literally sitting in sunlight or a light that mimics sunlight) helps. This week, this all came rushing to a head with me. So I am talking about it for the first time really publicly. Too many grey days just made things really hard this week.

And I hate feeling weak or asking for help. I did tell my husband what was going on (which of course he knows, right? He lives with me.)

Gardening makes all of this enormously better. Even winter gardening. But yesterday is how long it took before I felt my knee after my end of the year knee surgery turn a corner. So I have been limited all winter.

Knowing you feel down and knowing there is no rational reason to be down are maddening. Gardening does make this better. In the UK they offer gardening as a therapy. Just ask Monty Don.

Irish News (2018) Gardening: Monty Don’s ideal therapy for your garden and mind

WHILE New Year diet and fitness fads will come and go, gardening remains a constant for healthy living, says Monty Don

As someone who has suffered bouts of depression and had a stroke almost a decade ago, Monty Don knows the importance of his garden only too well.

“Gardening has helped my well-being immeasurably on a number of levels,” he reflects. “In terms of physical activity, it is increasingly shown as one of the best and most healthy things that anybody can do.”…

“There are people in their 90s who are gardening well because you have to bend, stoop, lift, twist, turn, walk, reach. It’s a full range of movement. Increasingly, people are realising its importance in terms of physical mobility and core strength.”

Being outside helps: He has said he uses a light box to replicate sunlight in the winter, but getting out into the garden also helps. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, if it’s a howling gale or rain, being outside in the light and in the air is intrinsically very good for your health, particularly if you are moving around.”

Growing plants makes you positive

“In terms of your mental health, because you growing something, you’re doing something positive, even if you are just tidying up.

“Lots have tests have shown that it’s really good to spur you on if you’re feeling down, will calm you down if you are feeling agitated and make you feel rested and balanced if your mind is jumbled and all over the place – it’s a really good leveller for your mind.”

Daily Mail UK : Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don opens up about his struggles with depression and says gardening can do what medicine ‘tries to mimic’ for mental health


TV presenter Monty Don believes gardening can have the same effect as medicine on mental health.

The host of Gardeners’ World, 63, discussed his own battles with depression and said people are beginning to explore gardening as a serious treatment for people who struggle with their mental health…..

‘We know that it is extremely effective in alleviating and preventing mental illness.

‘We know too little about how it does this, why it does it and how much it does it.’

But now, he says, money and research are going into gardening as an effective tool to cope with mental health problems according to The Telegraph.

He says medicine ‘tries to mimic’ the effects of gardening and making the most of nature.

Mr Don has taken Prozac before and tried cognitive behavioural therapy but he believes being outside is the best cure.

He recommends giving people greater access to gardens and encouraging doctors to prescribe gardening in the same way they do with exercise.

If Monty Don can talk about it, well hell, so can I. We don’t talk about this enough. And here in the U.S. it’s like big pharma has a muzzle or gag order out on us talking about how quite literally gardening can be better than taking another pill.

Maybe gardening isn’t going to do it alone for those who are truly clinically versus slightly seasonally depressed but in the U.K. and Europe they actually prescribe gardening as treatment for many things.

But here in the U.S. ? Not so much.

Well folks like Mother Earth Living have tried to tell us.

Mother Earth Living: Fight Depression and Anxiety with a Therapy Garden
Learn about the therapeutic properties of horticulture and gardening.

By Ginevra Holtkamp| May/June 2016

Being in a garden, surrounded by beautiful plants and doing simple, manual tasks such as deadheading, weeding and watering can calm the mind and lift the spirit, says Karen Kennedy, a horticulture therapist with a private practice in the Cleveland area and a faculty member at the Horticulture Therapy Institute ( In her work helping people who have been “touched by cancer,” either as a patient or caregiver, Kennedy uses plants, gardening activities and garden landscapes to help them improve their mental and physical health. “It’s amazing to see them relax, become engaged in the process and take a break from the issues they’re dealing with,” Kennedy says. Here, she shares some horticulture therapy techniques and tips for creating a therapeutic garden.

SYMBOLIC GESTURES: Plant things that are meaningful to you and evoke happy feelings.

…SECRET GARDEN: Another key element of a therapeutic garden is creating privacy and the ability to lose yourself in a plant-rich environment. Try to carve out a quiet, private space where you can sit, relax and admire the garden without being seen or disturbed—perhaps a comfortable bench ensconced within evergreen shrubs or living walls.

…GOOD SCENTS: Stop and smell the roses—literally. Scent is a powerful sensory stimulus that can calm us and help us connect more deeply with nature.

I never saw the article I just linked above until today. It’s basically everything I have done subconsciously in my own garden. It’s why I have my benches and seats and bells, isn’t it? My secret garden. Sigh. Reading this makes me happy. (Also see 7 Ways Gardening Helps with Depression … although I think it’s a little simplistic.)

Over the pond, Brits say gardening does the following for us:

  1. Reduced risk of stroke
  2. Burns calories
  3. Stress relief
  4. Improved immune system
  5. Responsibility
  6. Live in the moment
  7. Free anger therapy
  8. Sensory
  9. Growing fruit and vegetables
  10. Decreases osteoporisis
  11. Reduced risk of dementia
  12. Altered state of consciousness

So why aren’t we gardening more?

Gardening has always made me feel better. Since I was little. My ultimate happy place. It’s also like my art, a creative outlet. And I have always woven my garden magic to make myself and those I love happy. And then there is just that tangible indescribable buoyant feeling of your hands in the dirt. It’s a primal, very basic connection to Mother Earth.

Years ago I encouraged a neighbor who was at that point someone who spent way too much time in and out of alcohol rehabs to garden. I wasn’t exactly subtle about him finding a new hobby other than drinking. It was crazy the way gardening changed his life. His garden was magical. He was so talented, and like me, he was self-taught and just kind of learned as he went along. He gave me a Miss Kim lilac and re-introduced me to the Franklinia Tree. He died years ago. I still think of him sometimes when I garden.

Well now either this post is going to resonate with people or it will make people think I am nuts.

Whatever. I can only control how I feel. And I think this is important to talk about and I think there are a lot of gardeners out there who find digging in the dirt therapeutic and better than anything.

Garden on!


  1. This was well written. Even the act of going outside even if my hands are not in the dirt is a wonderful moment.
    This time of year can be rough. Enjoy some light where ever you can get it and keep a spare nightgown handy, just in case the weather cooperates.


  2. Gardening is my therapy as well. You are definitely not alone. SADS is well-named, but it’s more than being just sad. The guilt for feeling depressed when anyone looking at you would think you are blessed (and of course YOU KNOW you are blessed as well, but that just makes you feel worse) and not being able to just “shake it off” as my husband always says (he of the ever cheerful heart that most of the time I truly appreciate, but during SAD bouts it is just makes me feel even more guilty and sad!) Thank you for putting it out there.


  3. It’s great to see all the specific references to benefits of gardening. I can’t wait to get out and do something – anything – that doesn’t involve moving snow! I do like to shovel snow, but had enough for this year.


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