By George Ball

A few years back I witnessed an unforgettable sight. Having just led some visitors around Burpee's Fordhook Farm floral display gardens, I noticed one man standing outside the garden, rocking back and forth, his eyes closed. Concerned, I asked him if everything was OK. "I . . . am . . . happy," he replied simply, lost in rapture. In his honor, we have named it the "Happiness Garden."

I mention this episode because our country is right now in the midst of an epidemic of unhappiness. If Walt Whitman were to hear America singing today, he might hear a low, moaning blues rather than "strong melodious songs." America has a case of the blues - of epidemic proportions.

Depression is one of America's leading health problems, accounting for half the costs in mental health today. This new "Great Depression" exacts a high cost, with lost productivity and medical expenses totaling $83 billion annually.

Since 1988, the use of antidepressants by Americans 18 and older has increased fivefold. Ten percent of Americans are currently on antidepressants, filling 245 million prescriptions designed to boost their mood at a cost of $8 billion. An additional 20 percent who are depressed receive no treatment.

What accounts for this tidal wave of depression? Along with genetic factors and one's biology, experts point to environmental factors, the stress of modern life, the rapid pace of technological change, and our increasingly sedentary modern lifestyle.

Some believe that depression is currently overdiagnosed. Another school of thought contends that what's causing the depression epidemic are antidepressants. The notion is that while medications can be effective for the short term, they can worsen symptoms over the long term due to neuro-adaptation on the part of the brain.

Lifestyle factors surely play a part, and depression is frequently coupled with being overweight. Americans currently spend seven hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen - an activity, or non-activity, that does little to boost physical or mental health. Mesmerized before their screens, they sacrifice social and family life to a solitary realm offering little in the way of challenge or stimulation.

I'm happy to note that there's light at the end of this depressing tunnel. It's recognized that milder cases of depression can be eased in a number of ways for which no prescription is required, including yoga, meditation, and a daily dose of mild exercise.

The best clinic for treating depression might be right outside your door: the garden. According to Sir Richard Thompson, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, working in the garden frequently proves a more effective antidote than expensive pharmaceuticals.

The garden provides visual stimulation, mood-boosting sunlight, and a realm of effects you won't find sitting before your computer screen: fragrance, flavor, color, beauty - not to mention a harvest of the freshest herbs, vegetables, and vase-ready blooms. And scientists have found that M. vaccae, a benign soil bacterium, has antidepressant effects.

Being in the gardening business, I meet thousands of gardeners a year. You cannot imagine a group of more spirited, upbeat, enthusiastic, and content people. They are invariably fit, with blooming color in their cheeks and sunlit sparkle in their eyes. Whether men or women, young or old, urban, suburban, or rural, their therapy is the same: the Happiness Garden.

George Ball is past president of the American Horticultural Society, and chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. E-mail him at Hordubal@aol.com.