A gardener’s guide to avoiding cabin fever

PHOTO PROVIDED Lettuce thriving under a grow light in December is pictured.

According to Wikipedia, “Cabin fever refers to the distressing claustrophobic irritability or restlessness experienced when a person, or group, is stuck at an isolated location or in confined quarters for an extended time.” It had its origins in centuries past when people were often confined to their homes or cabins by harsh winter weather that threatened both health and safety and made travel impossible.

With the onset of winter and the limits on social activities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, is cabin fever a possibility? While the next few months may be challenging, unlike our ancestors, we have electricity, phones, computers, and the internet to help us get through them. Let’s take a look at some things gardeners might enjoy doing to avoid cabin fever.



A little bit of green on a windowsill goes a long way to offsetting the gray of winter and a flowering houseplant is an even bigger bonus. Houseplants have varying light and temperature requirements, so be sure to choose one, or several that match the conditions in your home. The University of Maryland has some helpful information on selecting and growing houseplants at https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/selecting-indoor-plants

Get a grow light and plant

lettuce or herbs

I’m doing this for the first time this year and so far, the results are promising. I purchased a 4′ x 1.5′ grow light fixture with four fluorescent tubes and a timer which I set to turn on at 7 a.m. and off at midnight. My husband used some spare lumber to make a simple stand for the fixture and we set it up on a countertop. In October I began planting lettuce (Lactuca sativa spp.) seeds including both red and green Salanova, Oakleaf, and Xalbadora, which is a mini romaine. I also planted some celery (Apium graveolens spp.) seeds. I start a new batch of seeds every two weeks and I’m happy to say they are all doing fine, which means we’ll have fresh lettuce all winter. For information on grow lights see https://www.johnson.k-state.edu/lawn-garden/agent-articles/vegetables/lighting_options_for_Seeds.html

Clean and service your garden tools

This is an opportunity to thoroughly clean and disinfect pruners, loppers, trowels, shovels, etc. Disinfecting tools can prevent the spread of disease. It’s also a good time to sharpen blades and oil tools to keep them in good working order. While these are often do-it-yourself projects, cleaning and sharpening services are also available at garden centers and hardware stores. Maintaining tools can help them work better and last longer. For more information about maintaining garden tools visit https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/maintaining-lawn-and-garden-tools/

Increase your


Take advantage of the many webinars, books, and online classes focused on gardening-related topics. The Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu is a good place to start. Just type the topic of your choice into the “What do you want to learn about?” box that appears in the center of the screen. With one click, lists of articles, webinars, publications, courses and workshops related to that topic will appear. Other universities and organizations such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Longwood Gardens, and Mt. Cuba Center have similar offerings. Curling up with a good book is a time-honored winter activity and there are plenty of interesting gardening-related books available, such as “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy, which is a favorite of Master Gardeners in Clinton County.

Plan to plant

Winter is a good time to peruse seed catalogs and plan your next flower or vegetable garden. It’s also an opportunity to read gardening magazines and indulge your imagination. Plenty of new ideas for garden beds, containers, and your entire landscape can be gleaned from the articles and photos available in print and online.

Spend time outdoors

When the weather permits, take a walk past your garden beds or go for a hike. Examine your landscape to see how you might apply some of the new ideas you’ve been considering. We often think of winter as being “downtime” but some birds and other wildlife are still active and enjoyable to observe. Being outside and getting a little fresh air and sunshine can be good for both mind and body.

Most of all, keep in mind that spring will come

Perhaps the lyrics from “The Rose” sung by Bette Midler say it best: “Just remember in the winter, Far beneath the bitter snows, Lies the seed that with the sun’s love, In the spring becomes the rose.”

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Debra Burrows, PhD is a retired Penn State Extension Educator and certified Master Gardener. She can be reached at dcb3@psu.edu.


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