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.
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,
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.
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…