Gardening is a source of relaxation, comfort and enjoyment for millions of people around the UK, and can be hugely beneficial to mental health. Time and time again I’ve seen how finding a connection with plants and the environment can help people on a natural route to wellbeing, improving their quality of life, sense of achievement and community belonging.
Throughout my career, I often worked with people recovering from very low points in their lives, many of whom found it hard to see a positive future. At these times, gardening can give people something to look forward to and helps to build resilience. Being in the garden can be a great way to accept a new start in life. The walled garden project I developed in Stourbridge for Dudley Mind was set back when a wall collapsed on one side. We had to start again for that year, preparing new ground and replanting from scratch. The project survived and flourished after what at first had felt like a complete disaster.
In my own garden, I recently lost a treasured 40-year-old Magnolia denudata to honey fungus. While I mourn its demise, I realise the opportunity to do something different with the space, to create something new, is something to celebrate. Gardening gives you the valuable understanding that life goes on, and that even if it’s not how you’d planned, you can still make it work. Horticulture also provides a safe space to take risks and to learn from your efforts. If a plant fails, you find out why and start again.
Many people find winter difficult, but in the garden it’s an exciting time, full of planning and preparation for what’s to come. After being in a garden for a while, people often begin to see the colder months differently. A gloomy winter’s day offers the chance to learn about pruning, and recognise the promise in the swelling buds of an otherwise bare branch. For me, horticulture is about providing opportunities for people to connect to their environment and to their community, both obvious building blocks for wellbeing. I’d love to see more ‘green prescriptions’ - doctors recommending outdoor activities like gardening to help people improve and maintain their health.
'Gardening gives the valuable understanding that life goes on, and that even if it's not how you'd planned, you can still makeit work' said community gardening expert, Jill Hogan.
Five ways to wellbeing
Jill has found that the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing can offer a perfect application to community gardening.
She suggests how these elements could be applied to your gardening project to improve your own and others’ health:
Community gardening and volunteering connects us to other people and to the community. When we’re feeling low, we may not feel like being sociable and may cut ourselves off from others or become withdrawn, which can lower mood further and increase the risk of isolation.
One project I developed targeted men who had been out of work through mental health problems such as depression and chronic anxiety. We live in a culture where men often don’t talk about their emotions, where feeling anxious can be seen by some as failure. ‘Safe’ conversations would start around plants and gardening, and once we got people talking, barriers would start to break down, while trust built up.
If you’ve been out of work for some time through poor mental health, working with others can be daunting, but gardening with a shared focus sparks teamwork and cooperation. The shared interests support friendships, and one of the biggest protectors of our mental health is to have good social connections.
It needn’t be about heavy digging, but gardening does put you through a range of movements. One man once described gardening to me as “digging my way out of depression”. Exercise can energise, but the activity can also distract from unwanted or negative thoughts.
The garden is full of interesting detail: plants, pests, colour, texture, scent and sound. Interpretation media that helps people to focus on specific elements can be quite a useful tool to encourage this awareness. Gardening can also foster mindfulness: an awareness of oneself and being in the moment. I’ve found that clipping lawn edges can be especially useful if someone is feeling anxious. It’s rhythmic, you have to be aware of your posture, there’s a precision needed to do it well and importantly, there’s a sense of achievement when it’s done.
I studied at Pershore College and recall my tutor, who had many years’ experience, saying that he still learnt something new every day. That’s the wonderful thing about horticulture - it keeps the mind active, it’s stimulating and there’s such a wide range of things to learn!
Volunteering time, sharing your seeds and cuttings or just offering a conversation can be a generous act that supports the giver and the receiver. In a public setting, what you plant and grow benefits the whole community. Taking mental health projects into public spaces means that participants can be valued for the contribution they make, rather than being solely defined by their ill-health.
Have you found that gardening has supported your own and other’s mental wellbeing? Share your stories with us by email, Facebook or Twitter.
Top tips for gardening for your wellbeing
Presenter, writer and gardener Ellen Mary shares 3 top tips for gardening for your wellbeing.