World Mental Health Day 2022 is all about making mental health and well-being a global priority. We know that gardening, and spending time outdoors and in nature is scientifically demonstrated to improve mental health, and this week we're speaking to one man who's journey with gardening has transformed his mental state for the better.
Hey Leigh! You’re well known for your advocacy of gardening as an amazing tool for mental health. Can you tell us a bit about how you discovered gardening in the first place?
I have always been interested in gardening, nature and the outdoors. My grandmother had a fairly large garden when I was growing up and it was a great place to explore. It had a small orchard of about four apple trees, a large veg patch, a secret garden, a stream, a scary hollowed-out oak tree and even cows and donkeys in one of the fields on odd occasions. Grandma’s garden was a magical escape for me and a special part of my childhood. I grew up with an alcoholic Mum which made my younger years pretty horrid. It became my sanctuary when the rest of my world seemed to be falling apart. I remember the total sense of calm that being outdoors in her garden gave me. I would often ask Grandma what jobs needed to be done and then spend a whole afternoon pinching out tomatoes, picking grapes that she grew in the greenhouse or mowing the lawn. It really cleared my mind.
Roll onto the spring and summer of 2020 and we were all facing Covid-19. My wife and I had just moved into our first house and suddenly we were pretty much trapped inside. My mental health had taken a nosedive as forced isolation, health anxiety, financial worries and a general lack of motivation all collided into a toxic mix. I was in a pretty bad way. I would often open the back door and stare out into the garden for a bit. I just didn't know where to begin. I ventured out onto the patio, swept up a few leaves, looked up at the sky but then came back in. It felt a bit pointless. I needed something to break the cycle. I had a garden; I just didn't know how to use it yet.
Like most of the population, I used to go on a daily walk during the pandemic as a way to get out of the house. These walks were vital to my mental health, grounding me, giving me a sense of purpose and reconnecting me with nature, which had been missing from my life for quite some time. I got into the habit of touching trees that I came across, feeling the different textures of the bark and focusing on the patterns that they made. I bought a pair of cheap binoculars and started recording the different birds that I could see. I even tried to learn various bird calls. I was finding that being outside allowed me to reset, it helped clear my head and made me feel better. This excitement stirred something in me, and I vowed to tackle my garden at home.
I didn't really know much about gardening back then. I had a bit of knowledge that I had picked up from grandma but taking on my whole back garden was a bit of a step into the unknown. I started small, focusing on just one section and I started growing what I knew: veg. I made a few raised beds out of some old bits of wood and grew a whole host of vegetables. I grew amazing courgettes, blueberries and tomatoes but I got a whole host of things wrong as well, and that was ok. That was the beauty of it and my word did it feel GOOD. The journey had begun.
What is it about gardening, and spending time outdoors, that benefits you?
My anxiety often makes me feel like everything is on fast forward, it’s like I’ve drank ten cans of energy drink or downed twenty espressos. This means that I find it very hard to concentrate on anything at all, I am easily distracted at the best of times but when my anxiety is high, I often have to put myself to bed just to stop everything from rushing past me at lightning speed.
What makes gardening so beneficial to my mental health is that it encourages me to slow down, it allows me to look at the bigger picture, to connect with the seasons and to notice things more. It isn't a quick thing; plants grow at their own pace and in their own time and there is something magical about watching the progress of those seeds you planted turn into seedlings and then blossom into thriving flowers or veg or whatever. That process grounds me in the here and now and that is a vital coping strategy for my ongoing positive mental health.
Gardening also offers so many opportunities for mindful tasks, these are things that you can do which allow yourself to be taken away for a moment, to focus on nothing else but you. I came up with an idea called ‘Quick Wins’ that I talk a lot about over on my social media pages. These are small gardening tasks that take less than fifteen minutes but give you a blast of satisfaction, positivity and achievement. A ‘quick win’ could be deadheading flowers, weeding, sowing seeds and turning the compost. You get the idea.
How would you describe the transformation in your mental health and general well-being since you started gardening?
My mental health is a sliding scale, some days are good, some not so good. It has taken me many years to realise and accept that fact, to acknowledge that I will still have off days and that I just need to learn to manage them. It isn't an instant thing. Gardening helps me enjoy the good days and deal with the bad.
When I first got my hands stuck into the soil back at the start of lockdown, I didn't know how positive it would be, not just for my physical health but mental health too. Oh, that’s something to mention actually, getting your hands dirty, getting them in the soil increases your serotonin levels. Research has found that contact with specific bacteria in soil triggers the release of the happy hormone in our brain. You become happier the more you garden. Scientifically!
Anyway, the more I got outside, spending time understanding the plants, observing them and nurturing them, the more I connected with myself. I was looking after the garden but also myself as well. Observation is an important point to make here, as gardeners we need to observe. We watch for signs of disease on our plants, the wildlife that has made our spaces home, the first bud, the first fruit. We watch for the signs of each new season. It comes naturally to us. I have used that skill for horticultural observation and let it filter into my everyday life, helping me notice my thoughts and feelings better and positively change the way I feel about life.
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What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling and wants to improve their mental health?
I am not a trained counsellor or medical professional, so I steer away from giving advice. I can only talk from my own personal experience and what works for me in the hope that it might inspire or resonate with someone. Lots of what works for me I have already said above; gardening, getting outside, taking notice, observing. I would also say that writing stuff down helps me a lot. I used to write a diary and it felt good to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper. The act of writing each word on a page allowed me to get rid of them in my head and reading them back was always a way I could reflect on where I was and how far I had come.
Now I am thinking about it, the single biggest thing that has helped me is talking. Now that sounds simple, but it’s not. It took me years and years to be able to tell someone how I felt and how it made me feel. I don't mean talking to a professional either, just talking to friends, family or someone you trust is beneficial. Once I started talking about it, it got easier to talk more about it and then all of a sudden, I had taken ownership of my mental health, understanding that it’s a part of me and nothing to be ashamed of.
Finally, what brings you joy when you step into your garden after a bad day or a long week?
Life. Whether that’s the tulips coming up in spring, the dragonflies buzzing about the pond in summer, the rudbeckia flowering in autumn or a robin saying hello in Winter. I don’t get hung up about how neat the garden looks or what isn't doing so well. The whole space brings me joy, no matter what it looks like. I find it comforting that I am nurturing a small part of Earth, that I am responsible for it and something much bigger is going on right in my back garden. That brings me joy.