Grow Some Plants, Save Your Sanity
If I hear the phrase "in these unprecedented times" just once more, I will run screaming into the streets, and I wouldn't be surprised if my neighbors joined me—responsibly masked and distanced. Here in New York City, we've lived the cliches: nurtured sourdough, coaxed windowsill herbs and scallions, developed intimate relationships with bean varietals while sirens blared and choppers whirred overhead like hungry grackles and we watched the COVID numbers mounting as our finances dwindled. You don't live in New York City for the express purpose of staying in your apartment. You live here for what's on the other side of the door.
I'm an intensely spoiled New Yorker with a small swath of outdoor space in the form of what could generously be characterized as a roof deck but could be better described as the increasingly leaky roof of my kitchen. Through my spindly college house plants, sewage-plant-adjacent public garden plot in grad school, illicit fire escape tomato and pepper baskets in my fifth-floor walk-up, and now these front stoop tubs and scrappy raised beds a few feet above my stove, I've found respite in the dirt. I have weird self-imposed rules that everything needs to be grown from seed, inaccessible in a regular grocery store, and ideally heirloom, but I'm under no delusion that I'm going to subsist on the meager output. The blazing Jing orange okra, bougie Koginut squash, and fronds of sorghum are a tasty novelty but in no way supplant the market down the street. This is an excuse to stand in the sun with hands too filthy to touch my phone.
But it's dipping below freezing tonight, and the sky went ash dark around half past four and save for my few unharvested green tomatoes (sure to be tomatosicles by morning), that's the end of the respite. So I planned ahead.
Granted, this is my first pandemic winter, but I'm no stranger to the mood shifts that accompany the seasonal change and clock jump. Like millions of people, I deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and I'm in the majority that reacts quite poorly to the diminished light and warmth that sets in. (A small percentage of S.A.D. sufferers weather the effects in the lighter, brighter months and often feel quite alienated when it seems like everyone else is all fun in the sun.) It's just harder to function, feel, and stay awake when there's a leaden sweater swaddling your entire being. I don't have the option of hibernation, so I've had to figure out a toolkit to keep me OK until spring. In it is a crap-ton of citrus that I essentially inhale as an antidepressant, some meditation, medication, and the now-discontinued Philips goLITE BLUE that is nestled in a box on my desk across the Hudson River in an office I haven't been to since mid-March.
It's OK because I've found something even better: grow lights. The full-spectrum bulbs that indoor gardeners both amateur and pro use to mimic sunlight provide the same effect on people. Our bodies can produce Vitamin-D—the lack of which is often a factor in depression—with the help of the sun's ultraviolet B rays or, as it happens, with the kind of lighting that plants require to thrive. So much so that Aerogardens have a prevalent off-label use as ersatz S.A.D. lamps per online forums and basically any friend I've ever asked, "Hey, do you like your Aerogarden?" Sure, they're psyched for the in-reach herbs and lettuce, but it takes about 30 seconds for them to mention that it's also become the key to their winter wellbeing because of that whomp of happy. I haven't bought one (yet—it's a counter space thing) but I've found myself unconsciously ritualizing the moment in the morning when I pour my first cup of coffee and flip on the Feit A19 bulbs I have nestled into clamp lights above some of my dwarf citrus trees, and the no-nonsense full-spectrum tubes I have blasting from a plant growing cart over the rest. (I have acquired 17 citrus trees over the past few months in anticipation of winter. This is how I cope.) Clearly I'm energized by the prospect of homegrown limequats, kishus, and calamondins, but I'm equally greedy for the chance to bask. These are dark damn times. I'm just shining a light down the tunnel.
Aerogarden Bounty Basic Hydroponic Unit, $199 at wayfair.com / Feit A19 bulb, $14.99 at acehardware.com / Ace 5.5-inch clamp light $8.99 at acehardware.com / 24-inch Stonepoint grow light strip, $34.99 at wayfair.com
p.s. Lights aren't a substitute for therapy or meds—just a supplement. If you're having a hard time, here's a list of free and low-cost mental health resources.