How Air Pollution Affects Your Mood (And How to Treat It with Plants)

By Staff
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Photo by Natasha Kasim on Unsplash

For the longest time, we’ve lived our lives in the cities without giving pollution a second thought. Then, someone realized that just like our food intake and the rest of the factors that affect our quality of life, air pollution might qualify as a culprit for increasing mental health issues among urban dwellers. It turns out, they’ve had a point: consistent exposure to air pollutants causes a number of different reactions in the body that ultimately lead not just to mood changes, but also anxiety, depression, and other forms of cognitive impairment.

Studies aside, who wouldn’t feel stressed, anxious, and depressed living in cities that literally deprive us of oxygen? However, now that we understand the link between our moods, mental health, and air pollution, we can do so much to nip the issue in the bud and help ourselves heal with the help of Mother Nature, while we simultaneously help our planet heal.

Air, health, and your mood

<p/>Several years ago, I interviewed many esteemed gardening experts for advice on how beginners should approach their first attempts to grow food. The major takeaway was that novice gardeners should be especially wary of biting off more than they could chew—or more precisely, what they could reasonably manage to get planted, weeded, watered and harvested. It’s so easy to imagine a bountiful garden in winter, and then find out that you can’t keep up with the demands of a truly productive garden all summer long. That adds up to more hassle, work and stress, and less bountiful crops. Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, summed it up perfectly with this simple tip: “Start small and scale up as you encounter success. Start by planting things you like to eat.”<p>So, for beginner gardeners trying out a new hobby, it can certainly be helpful to spend a few bucks on established seedlings, also known as transplants, from garden centers and farmers markets instead of trying to grow all of your plants from seed. But not all plants actually work best as transplants; some seeds should be planted directly where they will grow. And when it comes to transplants, we recommend that more experienced gardeners make the leap to start growing some of your own seedlings.</p><h2>Reasons to Choose Seeds</h2><p>There are many, many, many good reasons to start food plants from seed rather than buying transplants. First, consider the obvious cost savings—seedlings often cost $4 or more each, whereas premium seeds cost around $2 a pack and can last two years or more. Another important reason is that seeds can offer more control over your food supply—when you grow your own seedlings, you know what kind of soil they grew in, what kind of fertilizer they’ve received, and if any chemicals were used. It’s not easy to find completely organic plants everywhere.</p><p>Finally, growing from seeds offers infinitely more variety in plant options. You might want to focus on specific vegetable and fruit varieties that offer the best nutrition or the best defenses against a garden nuisance that is prevalent in your area. Seed companies can offer so much more variety than any garden store.</p><p>Of course, growing your own seedlings does require a bit more work, but it isn’t terribly hard and pays off in so many ways. Start with a few then round out your garden with some of the many agreeable plants that grow just fine when their seeds are planted directly in outdoor soil. When you’re sure you are ready to graduate from buying seedlings to starting your own plants from seed indoors, check out <a href=our comprehensive guide to seed starting.

Learn when and what to plant as direct-sown crops inThe Best Crops to Start as Direct-Sown Seeds.


Plants Best Started as Seedlings

The gardening experts at one of our favorite seed companies, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, recommend the plants listed below as good choices for starting in your garden as seedlings—whether you buy them as purchased transplants or grow the seedlings indoors yourself.

These plants are tender, which means they should not be planted, or set out, in your garden until you are certain that the danger of frost has passed in your area. You also need to help prepare these crops for the transition from indoor safety to outdoor volatility by “hardening off” the seedlings. To do this, simply set them outside in their little pots for a few hours each day over the course of a week before finally planting them. In the hardening-off phase, keep the seedlings out of direct sun and wind.

• Arthichoke• Broccoli• Cabbage• Cauliflower• Celery
• Chive• Cucumber• Eggplant• Leek• Melon
• Okra• Onion• Pepper• Pumpkin• Squash
• Tomatillo• Tomato   

New to Seed Starting?

If you haven’t yet tried to start your own seedlings indoors, here’s a bit of wisdom from Randel Agrella, Seed Production Manager for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds:

• All seeds respond to optimal moisture, temperature and light conditions. Meet those and the plants grow themselves—they require little in the way of additional support.

• That said, not all conditions are equally attainable in all situations, so in that sense, some crops may be easier for some growers, and other crops may be easier for others. Certainly, those crops requiring sustained higher temperatures may be more challenging in the cold conditions common in early spring. On the other hand, some home growers create too warm an environment. An environment that suits tomatoes is likely too warm for cool growers such as onions, cabbage family plants and lettuce.

• Light can be an issue—a sunny windowsill is only adequate if it faces south or maybe southwest. Veggie seedlings need a minimum of five to six hours of sunshine per day, and more is really noticeably better.

• Here’s my list of more challenging seeds to start, which I would recommend beginners avoid until they have some experience: Artichokes, celery and eggplants are the most likely to give trouble.


Consider Your Climate

Along with your level of experience, a consideration that might help you choose whether to use seeds or seedlings is time. For example, for crops that require a longer growing time, such as some types of tomatoes, a shorter growing season means you must start with seedlings, not seeds, outdoors if you hope to harvest fruit before frost sets in. This means that gardeners in the North will need to start more things inside than in the South. Lots of crops will do just fine in moderate climates using either indoor starts or direct sowing.

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Photo by Patryk Sobczak on Unsplash

For skeptics among you, the connection may seem slim, at best. However, let’s take a look at a few factors in our lives that directly affect our mood, and you’ve likely been in similar situations yourself. For example, when you fail to get a good night’s sleep, how likely are you to deliver top-quality work at the office the next day, or stay focused without a headache taking over your full attention?

Well, air pollution causes airway irritation, congestion, worsening allergies, which directly affects the likelihood of developing sleep apnea. Dealing with poor sleep quality, insomnia, and sleep apnea can be enough to cause severe fluctuations in your mood. Add to that, allergies, breathing difficulties caused by pollution, and other side-effects of polluted air, and you get a real buzz-killer in the cities.

Are we breathing happiness?

But even beyond your mood, it seems that pollution has a more long-term effect on how we live our lives. A study conducted in China showed that cities with increased pollution caused people to feel more unhappy, be less productive, have poor cognitive performance, all the way to increase the number of premature deaths.

It stands to reason that our urban lifestyles are becoming more affected by what we breathe, and we need to take preventative measures as well as healing tactics to reduce the effect of pollution on our wellbeing.

Green up your own personal space

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Photo by Unsplash/Mark Marquez

The fiddle-leaf fig is the outlaw of the houseplant world: tough to tame, hard to understand, difficult to love. Yet, we try to keep it and love it.

The fiddle-leaf fig’s columnar, complicated physique makes it among the most photogenic of trees; its likeness is printed, etched, and painted onto countless pieces of décor and works of art. Fiddle-leaf figs have been central to thousands of interior designs in the past decade; the focus of dozens of websites, giveaways, chat rooms, and weekly newsletters; and the muse for a seemingly endless stream of Pinterest galleries. Even The New York Times called the fiddle-leaf fig the new “it” plant. And no matter what houseplant trend comes up, nothing has budged this tree from its pedestal.

“The fiddle-leaf fig is the hardworking hero of houseplants,” says Emily Henderson, host of HGTV’s Secrets From a Stylist. “It’s graphic, dramatic, and always gives life and a big moment to a room. I love using them to soften the corners of rooms, as well as to bring a little bit of greenery to the space.”

Greenery for Good Health

Houseplants, such as the fiddle-leaf fig, are beautiful, but more importantly, they offer a host of environmental, physiological, and psychological benefits.

“Houseplants help city folks and all folks reconnect with nature,” says Christopher Satch, former plant science lead at The Sill — an online plant store with two brick-and-mortar locations. “There’s a larger world around us, and some of us tend to forget that.”

Claire Akin, a writer, teacher, and plant lover who runs an online fiddle-leaf fig resource, has found that houseplants offer incomparable bonding opportunities between loved ones.


Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

“My grandmother loved houseplants and actually had a fiddle-leaf fig before they were popular,” Akin says. “She taught me how to care for houseplants, and my mother taught me about outdoor gardening, specifically growing hybrid tea roses. To pass on the tradition, I gave my daughters the middle names Rose and Fern.”

Houseplants have also been proven to boost productivity, mood, and creativity, and they may even purify the space around them. Outdoor plants have shown an ability to actively remove particulate matter from the air. And on a chemical level, plants have been found to filter benzene, formaldehyde, and more out of enclosed spaces under laboratory conditions. While these precise conditions likely aren’t at work in your home, the more sunlight and attention you give your plants, the more positively they’ll affect your health.

Fascinating and Fussy

The Ficus lyrata, or fiddle-leaf fig, first cracked from its seed along the coastline of western Africa. On home turf, it grows into a tree, flowers, and even fruits — not that those fruits are edible. As a banyan fig and lover of hijinks, this evergreen’s preferred method for growth is to hatch atop another tree, gobble up as much sunlight as possible, and drop roots down over the host tree, inevitably strangling it in the process. Outlaw, indeed.

Unencumbered by city apartments or human touch, a fiddle-leaf fig tree may grow 100 feet tall, with violin-shaped (or fiddle-shaped) leaves that are 1 foot wide and about 18 inches long. Indoors, it keeps to a more modest 6 feet or so, although it can grow as tall as 10 feet. In exchange for being well cared for in captivity, the plant has been known to grow as much as a foot in a single year.

I decided to get my own fiddle-leaf fig in the spirit of intrepid journalism. After striking out at three garden centers, I ordered my plant by post. The diminutive, 8-inch fiddle-leaf arrived in a black plastic pot filled with dirt, wrapped in a bag, and concealed by cardboard. It didn’t look like much — just a shadowy sliver of the robust trees dotting the glossy pages of design magazines. I unfurled the plant and promptly transplanted it into a clay pot on my front deck.


Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

I stepped back to admire this new charge, and, in spite of its size, I suddenly understood the public fascination. My eyes followed the fig’s sturdy, textured base and cartoonish leaves: a bit of pomp and personality set atop a crooked pillar. This plant is neat.

What would happen next was anybody’s guess. I watered it, made sure plenty of sunlight was hitting those strange leaves, and headed back inside.

The lovely fiddle-leaf fig is high-maintenance, which may be a part of its bad-boy appeal in the plant world. People want to understand it, want to love it, and end up having their hearts broken again and again.

“It’s finicky, and has many requirements for the indoor grower,” Satch says. “Interestingly enough, it seems that newbies tend to get pulled into the plant world by this plant, only to be disappointed, then be discouraged from trying houseplants again. It’s easy to get enticed by its large leaves, but there are plenty of other large-leaved plants that are easier and less demanding than the fiddle-leaf, such as the tree philodendron (Philodendron selloum) or the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa).” He recommends only trying to grow the fiddle-leaf if you have large windows with plenty of southern sun, and if you have plant experience.

I can vouch for Satch’s caution, as I watched the fiddle-leaf fig I’d begun to care for suffer. Leaves that had appeared brown at their tips when the plant first arrived turned a deeper brown in different spots around the leaf after the plant’s first week in my possession.

Part of this comes from climate. The fiddle-leaf fig is designed for the tropics, not for being bagged and shipped across the country. To keep this tree content, you must first find its Goldilocks-esque sweet spot: not too little water, and not too much. I discovered that my plant had dried out too much while in transit, which I’d overcompensated for by keeping the plant moist instead of just giving it a good, single watering. As I reigned in my watering habits, my plant’s leaves regulated, became beautiful, deep shades of green, and sprouted a new leaf within a few days. 

Tips for Choosing Fiddle-Leaf Locale

Scope out your space. As a general rule: The bigger the leaf, the more sunlight a plant requires. The fiddle-leaf fig is no exception. With a lineage going back to the African tropics, you can be sure that your fiddle-leaf fig likes it hot and sunny. Keep the plant in a space that’s at least 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. You can fake the proper climate with some indoor grow lights. And unless you live in warm weather year-round, the fiddle-leaf should be kept far from any doorways to the outside. These angular beauties ought to be within several feet of a south-facing window so they’re not getting scorched (indirect, full sun is perfect), not getting too much shade, and not succumbing to any drafts.

Pick the right pot. As with most houseplants, the needs of the fiddle-leaf include well-drained soil in which to thrive. And you’re not going to find that in the flimsy plastic planter so many houseplants come in. “Planter style and color are up to you,” Satch says. “Only drainage and size matter. Repot in a pot that’s 1 to 2 inches larger than the current size, ideally with drainage, but if you can’t swing that, then line the bottom of the pot with an inch of lava rocks.”


Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

Experts agree that ceramic planters are best. Plus, they’re the most eco-friendly and always beautiful, and they’re going to give the most dramatic setting to these beautiful trees.

Stick to weekly watering. Fiddle-leaf figs need the opportunity to dry out completely in between watering; they thrive in semi-dry soil. Usually, you can get away with setting a weekly water reminder for yourself on a smartphone, but bear in mind that this may not suffice if the room the tree is in is very warm or cool. The folks at The Sill suggest watering every 5 to 10 days. “I find that the biggest mistake people make is overwatering,” says Claire Akin, who runs an online resource about the plant. “Fiddle-leaf figs are prone to root rot if they get too much water, or if they don’t have enough drainage. Lack of sunlight can make both of these factors worse.”

To test the soil, stick a finger a few inches deep and see if the dirt feels moist at all. If it feels totally dry and doesn’t stick to your finger, it’s safely time to water. Saturate the dirt completely, and then let it be.

Watch for signs of distress. Fiddle-leaf figs, for all the maintenance they require, are very good communicators — if their plant parents will only read the signs!

“They drop leaves at any sign of stress, so pay attention to your surroundings,” says Christopher Satch of The Sill. “The plant is more sensitive than you are. Never treat or think of your plants as just decorations; they’re living things that will respond to you and the care that you give.”

Noting where brown spots are on leaves, for example, can help you determine if the plant has been overwatered, or if it isn’t getting enough sunlight. Caught early, most irregularities can be treated by adjusting the temperature, light, or water that’s reaching the plant.

“Just like in sports, it takes practice to be good,” Satch says. “Anyone can grow plants. It just takes the right knowledge.”


Nicole Caldwell is the owner and co-founder of Better Farm, a sustainability campus, organic farm, and animal sanctuary in the Thousand Islands region of New York. Read more of her work at Nicole Caldwell Writes, or follow her on Instagram and Facebook @NicoleMCaldwell.

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Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

When you can’t go to nature, let nature come to you – or to your home, to be more precise. We can all benefit from adjusting our own personal environment by adding more plants that help clean the air of pollutants and thus improve our health and wellbeing. Examples of plants you can add to your home include the Areca Palm, Golden Photos, Spider Plant, and Peace Lilies. They are all-powerful air cleaners that can improve the quality of air in your home.

Add to that, you can help your plants to their air-detoxing job by looking into best air purifiers to add to your home, especially if you have pets and you’re prone to allergies – a little backup can go a long way to improve your home environment. Moreover, you should consider switching to non-toxic cleaning supplies that won’t unleash many harmful ingredients into your home air, as natural ingredients can be equally potent without the harmful side-effects for your lungs.

Add emerald to your office

Finally, another place where you spend the majority of your time and that can have a negative impact on your exposure to pollution in your office. Although you can choose to carpool to reduce your carbon footprint or switch to taking the metro or riding a bike, the hours you spent in the office are the ones with the greatest potential to harm your health.

To prevent and minimize air pollution at the office, you can also rely on Mother Nature and low-maintenance plants. You and your colleagues can tend to a few pots of the Boston Fern, the Weeping Fig, and the Snake Plant, and you’ll make sure that the air you breathe at the office is significantly less polluted.

Spending time in nature

<p/>If you choose to use fresh herbs, you have a couple of additional steps. First, I recommend dry-wilting the herbs, allowing them to dry overnight so they are still fresh, but some of the excess water has evaporated. Then follow the same directions as above for solar or cooked infusions. Once you have strained the herbs from the oil, place the oil in a covered, clean and dry jar.<p>Place the jar in a dark, cool cupboard. Every week, check for brown “dirt”—actually moisture from the plant material—to appear near the bottom of the jar. If not decanted (poured off), it can make your oil go rancid. Decant the oil into a clean jar; discard the dirt. Repeat this process weekly until the dirt no longer appears.<br /><br /><em>Adapted with permission from Earth Mother Herbal (Fair Winds, 2002) by Shatoiya de la Tour.</em></p><a title=Click here to read more from Body & Soul: Infused Oils and Salves. ” width=”” height=”” data-tw-width=”” data-align=”unknown” />

Photo by Justin Kauffman on Unsplash

While not everyone can afford to move to a farm and live surrounded by the woods and lakes, adding a few more regular trips to nature can help improve your mood, your health, and ultimately your quality of life. Simple ways to achieve that would be to join a hiking group over the weekend, camp with your kids during the holidays, and take up a sport that will have you outside more often.

Studies have shown just how powerful this green time can be for your health and your mood. All those stress triggers in your life tend to boost your cortisol levels while surrounding yourself with green means you’ll actually reduce cortisol levels. The restorative might of the woods also helps your lungs and your heart, lowering your blood pressure, regulating your breathing patterns, and allowing you to reduce fatigue.

We’ve done too much damage to the quality of air already, and we cannot expect the damage to be undone overnight. However, we can certainly change some of our habits, turn to natural solutions, and enrich our lives with plenty of plants so that we can benefit from pollutant-free air.

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