Therapy Gardens

June 2018

There is an emerging body of scholarship that supports gardening and the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and well-being provision in cities and communities. For instance, gardens in care homes have been found to be good for reducing the agitation and aggression linked to dementia, while hospices make use of the tranquillity of green spaces as part of end-of-life care.  According to research in environmental psychology simply being in a ‘natural’ environment can help promote recovery from stress. And I can attest that gardens undeniably provide a sense of solace.

Many of my posts have featured plants and flowers: it wasn’t intentional, but they do seem to be important for me and they figure as potent metaphors for my experiences. Exploring the changing and diverse meanings of ferns and daffodils in my writings here has helped me make sense of some difficult experiences. In therapy too I inadvertently conjured garden related symbolism: flitting butterflies, thriving or decaying plants and the changing seasons. These analogies illuminated unconscious thought processes and helped me tread some more constructive pathways through the thicket of my mind.

I have always enjoyed being outdoors and walking in beautiful settings but only very recently have I taken up gardening. It is a different way to experience the natural environment: more immersive, more visceral. What’s more, gardening is a process, never complete; it is an act of care and it’s often hard work, but its rewards are many.

I felt tired simply looking at our overgrown ‘cottage garden’ – at least that’s how it was described by the last estate agent. Shrubs and weeds had proliferated during years of benign neglect leaving only a slim pathway to the bicycle shed. Rather than a pleasant space to enjoy, it had been a reminder of another chore yet to address.

All this changed a few years ago. Gentle prompting from my mother encouraged me to tackle the tangle of vegetation. But I needed help. My step-dad hacked back gargantuan shrubs and removed well-established bramble and after a couple of days the hard labour was complete; I could then work on cultivating something resembling a garden in this newly revealed plot. Admiring the freshly made beds of soil I set about planting and digging. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was keen.

It’s become a cliché that gardening is therapeutic, but at that time I hadn’t appreciated just how helpful it could be. Gardening involves physical toil and according to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise is beneficial for mild to moderate depression. There’s also something about its practice which I believe is salutary. At least it is in my own experience.

Digging and manipulating soil to plant bulbs and seeds is a hopeful act. That in itself is heartening, but when the first green shoots push through the earth it can be exhilarating too. It is an act of human agency to dig, plant and to nurture and yet one’s gardening success lies far beyond the control of the gardener herself, notwithstanding her commitment and expertise.

So much can go wrong: blight, poor weather, ravenous slugs – and a hundred other circumstances can conspire to thwart the gardener’s efforts. While plans may go awry, the co-production between gardener and the non-human garden assemblage can produce glorious outcomes.

I have felt at once proud of the spring displays that have emerged in my tiny plot, and also humbled; knowing that the results were only partially of my own doing.

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One can read-up and share tips with other enthusiasts but sometimes it just doesn’t work out as planned. I was disappointed that my tulip bulbs didn’t materialise into the plants promised on the packet, but I’ve been pleased that the ailing roses I got on discount at the garden centre have thrived.  Gardening knowhow is often more tacit than taught. It is acquired through seasons of practice, of hope and sometimes of frustration. Feeling stressed by the demands of everyday life can make us feel impotent so it’s perplexing that gardening, in which we have only a relative influence on the outcome, can be so satisfying. Or maybe that’s its appeal.

Perhaps it is the combination of endorphin-releasing exercise, surrendering control to serendipity and the slow tacit acquisition of practical know-how that makes gardening special. But there’s something about the rhythms, textures, sounds and scents of gardening too. The immersive and visceral experience of working with plants and mud encourages us to be mindful and present in our own bodies. Instead of worrying about work or the everyday stresses of life, gardening directs us to the tasks at hand: to pruning, repotting, weeding or digging.  Anxiety can worsen when we focus unduly on the past or worry excessively about the future, whereas gardening is an activity engaged in the ‘now’.  And since most plants and shrubs only flower for a short period, to enjoy them at their best we must be fully present.

And of course, gardens are sensual and sensory. Their beauty can’t be captured in a text or by a photograph they must be experienced. The feel of earth warmed by microbes and sunshine, delicate and textured vegetation that brushes the skin, foliage with thorns or stings, inhaling the musty smell of air in soil displaced by rain, or the aromatic scent of leaves and petals, the sound of breeze hissing through leaves. It is these incursions on our senses that can help relieve us of our existential angst and provide succour in difficult times.

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Categories gardening, mental health, power of plants, wellbeing

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