I garden, I get better

I get a terrible crick in the back, too, but that’s not the point. I get results, and I get all sorts of other benefits.


It’s not simply the satisfaction of growing things which are beautiful, though there are plenty of those. It’s not just the satisfaction I get out of growing (largely) organically, which encourages all sorts of wildlife, from wrens and slow worms to crickets, moths and butterflies.

still eating

I started this year not at all well. As it turned out (eventually), an old neck injury had been exacerbated by a more recent fall and that had led to vertigo and all sorts of trouble with my back, one leg, one arm – you name it. Not being well meant I’d spent a lot of time inside feeling sorry for myself, and unsurprisingly I got quite down even though I recognised that the situation could have been a lot worse. Then my doctor suggested using a SAD lamp, on the grounds that last summer hadn’t been a summer. I tried it, and it worked. But even more effective was the real thing, and I couldn’t just laze about when I was out getting my dose of therapeutic light. So I weeded. And I planted.


And when I was tired from weeding and planting, I did my extremely boring physio outside and then sat and admired the view.


But only for a bit, because there was more to do. Pretty soon I noticed that I could look down to weed without getting dizzy, and that I could manage more and more digging and lifting. And the garden really benefitted from the attention,

cool blues

but I didn’t realise that I was also benefitting, and every bit as much. It took one of my friends to say it. She actually said – a little melodramatically, perhaps, but doesn’t translate very subtly – that it had ‘saved’ me. It certainly gave me back loads of pleasure. And some slight hysteria (the dragon, now possibly revealed as Next Door’s Cat, has been back), but there you go.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. The charity Mind have been running a programme they call ‘ecotherapy’ – using gardening, growing food and doing conservation work to help people with mental health problems. Over 12,000 people have taken part in their Ecominds projects over several years, and – to sum up – the results have shown ‘significant increases in wellbeing’. Participants have reported that their self-esteem has improved, they are more likely to see their families and friends, and that they feel much more part of the community. For myself, I get a huge amount of uplift from colour, and I don’t think that’s unique to spinners, dyers, textile people, artists, whatever. I’m not saying I believe in structured ‘colour therapy’, because I don’t think I do, but I do believe in the sheer joy of colour.

helenium Wyndley

Back to Ecotherapy. The University of Essex analysed Mind’s results – it’s not a fluffy, woolly, PR-based piece of ‘research’ designed to generate feature articles (as an ex-hack, I’ve had my bellyful of those; I’ve written a few, as well). No, ‘ecotherapy’ has been shown to help people struggling with all sorts of issues, particularly anxiety and depression (and I’m not going to make any cracks about gardening actually increasing my anxiety when I discovered the dragon holes, oh, whoops, mentioned it).

Of course many other charities know all about the benefits of gardening and use them. One of my favourites is Thrive, with what they call ‘STH’ – social and therapeutic horticulture: check out some of their feedback to see how effective it can be. Another is Freedom From Torture – previously the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which may not be as snappy as FFT but tells you more about what it does, and which our family have supported since its foundation. FFT has a ‘therapy garden’ (with gardening and psychotherapy combined, the latter often taking place in the garden), which is part of the natural growth project. There are a couple of FFT allotments in London, too, where their less vulnerable clients can work and find some sort of equilibrium. As one, Suleyman, said, ‘if the garden looks good, I feel good. When the soil sleeps, I sleep. Apart from these things you have, these snails and slugs which were new to me, there is no evil in the garden’.

Makes my recent problems pale into insignificance, and puts them back in their tiny little box where they are emphatically going to stay. And Suleyman is bang on. Go, garden!


Er, not literally – though if the weather forecasters are right, my entire garden might pitch up in Manchester overnight… fingers crossed that it stays put…


27 Comments Add yours

  1. jan rushby says:

    How fantastic to read your comments about the therapeutic value of gardening. I have suffered from depression and found gardening an amazing help. I used to work in Mental Health Services in York and we set up an allotment which was a joy to so many people on so many levels.

    1. kate says:

      It really works, doesn’t it? Really works – glad your experience has been positive too, and how very impressive of York. I can’t imagine Gwynedd doing anything similar, though I’m probably being unfair…

  2. Go garden ineed – once we see what is left after all tis wind… Fabulous that it has helped you so much. it reall helps me too, both to rebuild stamina when I have had a relapse and to counter the depression I battle. Colour, texture, shape, all dancing against a backdrop of sea and sky, so uplifting. And even inside a wonderful distraction from all the bad stuff. Great post. Oh, and I am totally in love with that shot of the echinops and companions. And the tree-free view. Wonderful.

    1. kate says:

      (There were some leaves off my trees this morning. Oh, the storm of the century, will it never end!)

      Again and again people report gardening giving positive results for depression – and I don’t think it’s just the well-known benefit of exercise. I agree with you – I think it’s something to do with the visual impact, though I often forget about the importance of texture (I’m trying to retrain myself), and it does work from inside, too.

      The echinops had a fab summer this year, it really loved the weather and didn’t get blackfly. It now looks terrible, but I trust is only resting..

  3. VP says:

    Well said Kate. A few years ago I was off work with stress. The best advice the doctor gave me was to ‘go off and do something you love doing’. So I went up to the allotment everyday and slowly began to heal. I think it’s not only being outdoors and experiencing colour that does the trick, there’s something about digging hands into the soil which helps; literally ‘grounding’ the soul so it can face the world again.

    So good to see you last week 🙂

    1. kate says:

      What brilliant advice – I wish more docs thought like that! For me it’s also the casting your mind ahead thing – positively. Thinking, for instance, ‘all those seeds will come up and give me an amazing display’, and looking forward to it. And then they do come up, and they do give you an amazing display, even if some of them aren’t quite what you expected, ahem. Plus you have to care for things – and that includes you…

      Good to see you too!

  4. Cathy says:

    Kate, what an honest post which I am sure more people than you realise will benefit from. Staying grounded by spending time in the garden or in the natural environment generally is often by far the simplest way of stopping life from being overwhelming – but sometimes people are unable to see the wood or the trees without support so well done to all these excellent charities. Well done to you also for challenging your own dragons and emerging at the other end of the tunnel – and your pictures are gorgeous too!

    1. kate says:

      I’ve been really impressed by FFT (as you can tell)… among other things, they have found that psychotherapy with extremely damaged people just works better in the garden. People seem to relax and let go a little bit, and then a bit more, and then a bit more. And I also love the impact that growing familiar food can have, giving displaced people roots (almost literally) and building bridges. Michelle is right when she says gardening grounds you.

      1. Cathy says:

        All so true, Kate

  5. hillwards says:

    Gardening really helps me too, definitely lifts the spirits. There is just something about being outside in the elements, in touch with the ground, and I find my mind clears and a familiar rhythm takes over. Really helped me last year when grieving for my Dad. It’s definitely one of the things I leap to when I need solace – furious exercise helps too, but it is sometimes easier to ‘forget’ that! Glad that you are on the mend, hope the storms are swift and leave no trace, so far the winds have been no worse than usual here, with a fair bit of rain but nothing excessive yet…

    1. kate says:

      Oh yes, I remember just after my mother died, when I was still in London. She was agreat gardener, and I could always ring her with questions. I was moping about in the garden and my next door neighbour stuck her head over the fence and asked if I was OK. I explained what happened, and she said she was in the same position – except it was her dad. We decided then and there that we would ask each other for help, and we’d garden together sometimes – going on Colombia Road flower market trips, etc. It worked a treat.

      PS: but what’s the end result of exercise, plain exercise? Abs and improved health, OK, but you can get that with gardening PLUS you have beauty, colour and texture. Not a lot of those in the gym…

      1. hillwards says:

        What a lovely arrangement, for both of you. Our neighbours aren’t really gardeners, and few of our peer group have any interest in gardening – yet! I’m sure it will come in a few years – so I can only share my enthusiasm with my Mum and the great wide web. And structure and food related areas with my husband, but he’s less interested in details and actual plants if you can’t eat them. Probably why I blog!

        I do prefer to get my exercise outdoors, of course. But when time or weather conspires against gardening or walking etc, a hard circuits session does wonders to clear my mind and put me through my paces. I enjoy it when it’s over, unlike gardening which I enjoy doing, mostly. Ignoring planting large numbers of bulbs in heavy clay.

        1. kate says:

          It was great, and I think it got both of us over difficult times… neither of us were ‘typical gardeners’, whatever that is, being both in our 30s, single, no kids, and probably more likely normal habitat being some internet/computer workshop (both also geeks), and then we both moved. But until I met Karen (Artist’s Garden), there was nobody I could bore rigid discuss plants with here, and I really missed it. And that was through blogging – bonkers, as we’re about half a mile apart…

          Bulbs in meadow equally bad. But wild horses would not get me anywhere near a gym. *Makes sign of cross with fingers…

  6. Anna says:

    Glad to hear that being outdoors has healed your indoors Kate. I know from one of my fellow allotment plot holders, who has mental health issues, that his plot has been his saviour during the last few years. He now want to share the benefits of growing with people in a similar position to himself and we hope to get a project off the ground on the allotment site before long. Will have to visit the Mind website to see what is going on already. Disappointed to hear that the dragon might be a mere pussy cat .
    PS I imagine that if your garden had ended up in Manchester its flight path would have taken it over our house, so I’m most relieved to say that I did not notice any UFOs in the early hours of the morning.

    1. kate says:

      Inside / outside – what a good way of putting it! Sounds as though it would be well worth investigating Mind’s work…

      A friend of mine has an allotment in south-east London, and there is a plot which is used by some refugees as part of a charity – don’t know which one. Some muttering at first, but apparently it didn’t last long, now people have get togethers and even some of the old stalwarts have started growing interesting and – for them – unusual veg, plus showing signs of not believing everything written about refugees in the Daily Mail any longer. Benefits evidently two way in terms of positive mental effects!

  7. Christina says:

    All so true, without being to go out into the garden (preferably to actually garden) I would get very low and find it difficult to motivate myself at all. I’m so glad you’re feeling better!

    1. kate says:

      Indeed… mind you, this time of year – with gardening essentially meaning raking up leaves and trying to make holes in the surface of the meadow for bulbs – it’s difficult to remind myself of the delights of spring / summer!

  8. Pauline says:

    I so agree with everything you say, if I can’t get out into the garden, for whatever reason, I resent it and don’t settle until I have a bit of gardening therapy. With my muscle problem which seems to be permanent now, I gage how my body is by how much gardening I can manage to do. I’m so glad that your health has improved so that you are able to enjoy working in your garden once more.

    1. kate says:

      I quite agree, and I have to watch my back / neck closely – too much, and I know about it – what’s worse, so does the physiotherapist; she can always tell and she gets very firm.

      (When my mother, a demon gardener and my garden guru, was too achy to garden she used to direct me from her chair, pointing imperiously at things she wished moved or removed, like the biggest Euphorbia robbiae patch in the known world. I would love to pursue this approach, but attempts have been – let’s just say ‘rejected’….)

  9. wellywoman says:

    Gardening is amazing therapy. Much, much better than many of the drugs so readily handed out on prescription. That’s why I will miss my allotment so much if we move. For a bare patch of soil that costs me £10 a year it has given me so much, more than I could ever imagine. It has helped to heal me too and opened up opportunities I would never have imagined possible several years ago. I wish people in power would see the power of horticulture to help. Maybe then new houses would have bigger gardens rather than postage stamps, allotments wouldn’t be under threat from developers and horticulture would become a respected and well-paid profession. Anyway rant over, I’m off to pick some jewel-coloured dahlias to brighten up my home. :)))

    1. kate says:

      It is.isn’t it? I can’t imagine how I would feel if I had to move, as I expect I will one day – hills will get to me eventually, even if the financial situation doesn’t – but I daresay I would make a garden anywhere. When I look back I know I have always had something growing, even art Uni, where one of my houseplants got so impossibly large I had to donate it to the JCR, and it took three porters to move it. The few times I’ve not had anything growing, I’ve been low…

      You are quite, quite right about the political importance of gardens. YO!!!!!

  10. croftgarden says:

    Delighted you’re feeling better and the garden is obviously thriving too. Gardening works for me whether it is the zen of weeding or shoveling muck in gale (today’s task).

    1. kate says:

      I’m supposed to be mucking out the greenhouse as it isn’t raining. I am trying to persuade myself that this is therapeutic but it isn’t working… Half of greenhouse becomes winter log store, so this does need doing. Sigh.

  11. What a great post to read. When I began my garden journey 3 years ago, I was in a strange place – I opted not to see the doc but took my mother’s advice, give gardening ago (she had read an article in a magazine a few weeks before hand) – it worked. Not immediately but the effects soon became apparent. Whilst my therapy was self prescribed – it definitely worked.

    1. kate says:

      Thank goodness for your mother – she got it bang on.I am trying to remind myself of the continuing benefits right now – the iris bed is disappearing under weeds.

  12. Your garden photos are absolutely breathtaking; I am glad to see you overcame your health issues.

    1. kate says:

      Thank you – and I’m sure the photography helps too. A reminder of all the beauty of the world.

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