Just being outside, whether you’re gardening, exercising, or simply taking a stroll, is a great mood booster. But getting your hands dirty in the garden is so effective at combating depression, stress, and anxiety that it’s often used in “horticultural therapy” at psychiatric hospitals.
Here’s a guide to get you started—10 of the most potent antidepressant foods and herbs, and how to grow them anywhere.
Why You Should Eat It: All types of chard are packed with magnesium, a nutrient essential for the biochemical reactions in the brain that boost your energy levels. In fact, magnesium deficiency is a common condition among people diagnosed with clinical depression.
How To Grow It: Chard is a hardy crop that, if planted even as late as summer, will produce until early winter. Pick a spot that gets a fair amount of sunlight; it can tolerate shade but produces best with lots of sun. Or choose a container that’s about 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep and fill it with a good all-purpose organic potting soil. Sow between two and three seeds per pot. You can start harvesting leaves as soon as they appear, but harvest from the outside so as not to kill the entire plant.
Why You Should Eat It: The anthocyanin antioxidants in rare—but tasty!—blue potatoes reduce inflammation that can lead to bad moods. Their skin is also packed with iodine, which helps stabilize thyroid hormone levels, thus warding off mood swings.
How To Grow It: Potatoes are about the easiest crops to grow. You can even grow them in a bag of potting soil, without really dirtying your hands. To do that, cut a few drainage holes at the bottom of a bag of potting soil, then stand the bag someplace sunny. Bury two “seed potatoes” (you can buy them from Wood Prairie Farms) about four inches deep, and wait about three months for them to grow. When flowers start to appear, tip the bag over and dig out the potatoes. To keep the harvest going long into the fall, plant a new set of seed potatoes every few weeks.
Why You Should Eat It: Tomato skin is rich in lycopene, a phytonutrient that actually stops the buildup of pro-inflammatory compounds linked to depression. Because lycopene lives in tomato skins, the best way to get it is through cherry tomatoes, whose smaller surface area means you’ll eat more skin than if you eat a full-size tomato.
How to grow it: Cherry tomatoes are good choices for containers, and they’ll produce more fruit than larger varieties. The pots should be large—one that holds four to six gallons of potting soil will do—and placed in a sunny spot. In June, find some organic cherry-tomato seedlings at a local nursery or farmers’ market (big-box-store tomato plants can be very disease-prone), and plant them so that the first row of leaves is covered by dirt. Depending on the variety you grow, cherry tomatoes can take about two to three months to start bearing fruit.
Why You Should Eat It: Black-eyed peas have some of the highest levels of folate of any vegetable. It’s thought that folate plays a role in creating dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, three brain chemicals that, when absent, can make you forgetful, irritable, and unable to sleep.
How To Grow It: Black-eyed peas need long summers with temperatures averaging between 60° and 70°F, which is why they’re so commonly grown down South. They need warm days and warm nights, with lots of sun and water. After you plant them, they’ll be ready to harvest in a little over three months. You can eat them fresh off the vine, or leave them on the vine until they dry (you’ll hear seeds rattling around in the pods) and save them to eat all winter.
Why You Should Eat It: Oregano is rich in caffeic acid, quercitin, and rosmarinic acid, all components that combat depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
How To Grow It: Oregano, like most herbs, is easy to grow. Look for a seedling at a local nursery, pot it, and just water as needed, leaving the soil on the dry side. It thrives better in containers, but make sure your pot is fairly large—at least 12 inches across—as this plant can grow pretty quickly.