Tom Hodgkinson: Gardening beats Valium every time


Related Topics

Last week I found myself at a literary festival in Cologne, talking about gardening to 250 Germans. Sharing the stage with me was a writer called Jakob Augstein. He has created a garden which is also a political statement against utilitarianism. You'll be familiar with that dry, arid philosophy, promoted by Jeremy Bentham and enthusiastically taken up this century by Labour politicians. It says that human action must be judged by how useful it is. It's an approach to things that seems to make some sense at first. Build roads, not churches! But human life is more complicated than that. We need beauty, meaning, joy and pain as well as mere efficiency.

Anyway, Mr Augstein's garden is strictly controlled and completely useless. He bans anything edible from it. No rocket or nasturtiums. He is tough on weeds and tough on the causes of weeds. No daisies on the lawn will be tolerated; if they dare to poke their heads above the grass, they will be immediately cut down with the lawn mower. Or, better, rooted out completely. The garden must be beautiful and any brutal method that will serve that end is acceptable.

My own garden is almost the philosophical opposite, as it is supposed to provide my family with food, and is frequently overrun with weeds. However, I do have sympathy with Mr Augstein's anti-utilitarian position. What's wrong with being useless? There was a great song by the artist Leigh Bowery called "Useless Man", which celebrated the life of the pleasure-loving aesthete dandy over the capable male. And GK Chesterton wrote an essay called "Wanted: An Unpractical Man", which was a sort of attack on utilitarianism. An excess of efficiency and practicality, he argued, achieves only a mean compromise. What we need are wild-haired lunatics: "If our statesmen were visionaries, something practical might get done." We all need lots of thinking time, and a beautiful garden is the place to get this thinking done.

Whatever kind of garden you wish to create, I am certain that the actual process of gardening is good for your soul. I have been fairly down in the dumps over the past three months, and I attribute my gloom partly to the fact that I have done very little gardening lately. It is therapy. And before you scoff at this idea as cranky and fanciful, let me cite an authority to back it up. No less than the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, went on record last week to recommend that GPs put melancholy patients in the garden. "I would much rather a doctor had time to listen to patients and, instead of prescribing a course of anti-depressants, prescribe a course of gardening," said wise Sir Richard, who is chairman of Thrive, a charity that promotes gardening as therapy.

Certainly gardening was more effective than the Valium my GP prescribed for my sleeplessness and anxiety. I had two of the worst demon-filled nights of my life on the pills. I slept far better when I returned to my own prescription of Cotleigh Barn Owl, a delicious dark ale from Somerset.

Over the past few days, I have found myself digging and planting with abandon, and there is no doubt that my spirits have lifted as a result. The great thing about gardening is that you have something to show for your efforts. It is creative and brings beauty into the world. It feels less indulgent than visits to the counsellor or shrink. The gardener is an artist and a philosopher, and the philosophers, according to Aristotle, are the happiest sort of people.

I can't speak for Prozac or lithium, having never tried them. I do know, however, that most of my middle-aged friends seem to be on some sort of anti-depressant. Has our competitive consumer society made us miserable, or have people always been sad?

One of my idling heroes, Dr Johnson, was afflicted by depression, and all poets are given to brooding, which can produce great results: I am always grateful that Keats wrote "An Ode to Melancholy" before the invention of anti-d's, as "An Ode to Comfort" would not, I predict, have been such a great poem. And one of the best-selling books of the 17th century, Robert Burton's wonderful The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives myriad ideas for curing this age-old affliction. Borage and hellebore, it seems, were the Prozac of their day, but he also recommends mirth and merry jests, and, yes, gardening, as recommended by the ancients: "how they have been pleased with it, to prune, inoculate and graft".

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'