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Gardening, depression and well-being

One reason why I became a gardener was because I have a tendency towards depression, having suffered badly from it as a young adult. The idea of gardening for a living grew on me, if you'll excuse the pun, from helping on an organic farm, to studying Permaculture, to working for my friend's gardening business to finally getting a qualification in horticulture. I noticed that being outside improved my mood and physical exercise helped me to feel more capable and improved my general physical health, leaving me feeling more energy than I would usually have. I also liked the idea of having specific tasks and the feeling that there was always plenty to do, and being able to take pride in the difference I made to people's gardens. Later on, I relished the idea of working for myself, with all the flexibility and freedom that that entails; not to have a manager breathing down my neck, but a customer who respected my skill and knowledge and treated me as a co-conspirator in creating their perfect garden. Generally, this has been the case.

I have come across such programmes as 'Green Gyms' for people who have mental health needs and they sound great, but actually, in a sense, we all have mental health needs! Our culture is currently very sedentary and many people don't work outside, or do practical things with their hands, other than operate computers or phones in offices. Often people can feel very caught up in their heads, perhaps obsessed with social media, and doing something that involves using the body can break them out of it. Being in fresh air and braving the weather can give one a feeling of resilience, as often the grey winter's day looks far more unpleasant from inside the house, than outside, with the right clothing.

Completing a physical task can give one a sense of satisfaction, of having used one's muscles for a purpose, which is arguably more acute than the satisfaction of running around the block or going for a random walk. When one is in the grip of depression, it is difficult to motivate yourself to do the simplest of things, but when you literally see the fruits of your labours, by growing edible plants, it can help connect you to nature and to the reasons you can find for living, particularly when those reasons are hard to come by.

Sometimes, caring for plants can be a classic displacement activity, just like when people who have wanted but haven't had children, or whose children have left the nest, can become obsessive about pets. Plants can be just as demanding and some may argue, just as rewarding! Just think of the trouble some people go to with Auricula*, just as an example. Look at it one way, and it seems ridiculous. Look at it another and it is a wonderful form of art. I straddle both views at times. The same is true of life. Which glasses will you wear today?

Lots of people pursue gardening as a second career, perhaps after a break caring for children, but also many people who manage depression can find it a good choice as a career for all of the reasons I mention. Never assume that if you are employing a gardener, that they are doing that job because they don't have other skills from other lives, or that they are uneducated, which sadly, has been assumed about me. (I've got a degree in Philosophy.)

I admit I don't have much time for the highly competitive kind of gardener who professes to be an expert on everything, spewing Latin terms in a kind of machine gun effect to keep non-nerdy types at bay. It's not my style. I give my job away by getting my customers so enthusiastic about working in their own garden they start doing it themselves and don't need me! I prefer it that way, than by encouraging a false dependence by giving the impression I know everything and the customer knows nothing. This is rarely true. Why would I choose dis-empowerment as a career when I've striven to find something that gives me a feeling of well-being?

*Correct name Primula auricula; here are some images of 'auricula theatres': http://bit.ly/2e9yNHL

Here is a leaflet produced by Thrive, the gardening therapy charity, which outlines the positive benefits of gardening for people with mental health needs: http://bit.ly/2esa6tg. You can also learn more on their web site: http://www.thrive.org.uk.

Comments (14)

  1. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Well said, GoodEarthLady!

    It is starting to be acknowledged by the medical community that gardening (or any sort of outdoor work) can be really helpful for people with many sorts of problems, both physical and mental: but it's well worth saying that even people who consider themselves to be perfectly "normal" will still benefit from time spent outdoors, time spent connecting to the seasons, and to nature, to name just three.

    It's also valuable for "modern" folks to realise that we don't need all these power tools and electronic devices: it's lovely to live in a time where we have the option of using them, but we don't "have to" use them. There is such a simple pleasure to running your hands through perfect compost... sigh

  2. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    Thanks Rachel! I agree about compost-sometimes, living in Glastonbury gives me evil thoughts of running dodgy New Age courses and now I have visions of guiding rich tourists with blindfolds to plunge their hands into bowls of compost with guided meditations about 'the Source' with ethereal synthesizer, blasting through a PA..:-) But maybe not. :-0

  3. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    OOh, yes, yes! claps hands in girlish glee they'd fall for it every time! Must admit, I considered using the word "sensual" when talking about compost, but didn't want to lose any GreenPlantSwapCred that I might have acquired.

    And regarding your comment about not assuming that a professional gardener is a non-academic thicky, I feel your pain... when I was studying for my Diploma in Botany (I already have three A levels but none of them have much to do with horticulture) people kept asking me what I was going to do afterwards: as though, having gained a diploma, I was somehow going to be "too good" to carry on doing actual gardening!

  4. Grower

    Amanda CW

    What a great post Gerry. You're so right, gardening can be so restorative, rewarding and calming. There should be a national campaign to make more people aware of it i.e. not about just doing gardening, but about the benefits you can get from it.

  5. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Amanda, I believe that there have been several national campaigns lately: the NHS are promoting it, the Parks Department are constantly quoting various studies (which prove gardening to be beneficial) when trying to retain their funding, etc: the problem seems to be that only people who already know about it, are reading them! It's like campaigns to lose weight, give up smoking etc: unless you are already interested in the topic, you don't read the report!

    I have one particular gardening Client: I've been there for a couple of years, and in the last few weeks she's started coming out to chat to me, so I give her a pair of secateurs and guide her to do a bit of dead-heading while we talk. She is now getting quite interested in the garden, and sometimes spends an hour or more outdoors - getting brighter and happier by the minute!

  6. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Well, my early experience on an estate garden was a nightmare. The lady of the house was former Indian raag, a rare thing these days, 5 years of insane madness, so I thought at the time. But it wasn't my 2 years at college and city& guilds qualifications that made me a gardener, there's nothing like being being shouted at for five years and coming out a much stronger person with plenty of confidence after a pretty unconfidant start in life. I look at other tradesmen now, hating their job and I know I have really been so lucky. I might still get a bit down, but that is when I can't get outside to garden either as a job, or as a hobby.I'm even happy to bang in fence posts or chop wood for someone, These are things I find some people just cannot do. But it was those 5 years of 'hell', so I Thought then that made me a proper gardener, nothing else, and as long as I can carry on, I will never be depressed in any way

  7. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Rob, I do know what you mean: I'm a member of the Professional Gardeners' Guild, and many of my fellow Guild members are what I call "Estate" gardeners (as opposed to "Independents" like me, ie self-employed). I am constantly shocked at the tales they tell of utterly unreasonable employers.

    (But on the other hand, many of them have very nice employers, who look after them, give them the occasional bonus or perk - and of course they do get paid holidays, sick pay, and other benefits! )

    I'm happy to hear that you took those five years of hell and turned them around into a positive thing, which made you the man you are today: it could so easily have put you off gardening for life!

  8. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Oh yes, nearly forgot, I used to be that thick kid that hated school and was picked on. One reason was that I hated football, still do, and was obsessed with dinosaurs, still am, so what? I never did or will follow everyone else, and hey presto! when it came to all those scientific names we had to learn for our plant ident module guess who was getting100% in the tests, funny those dinosaur names really did come in handy later on.I remember one of my former tormentors getting a good gardening job, he had to do his nvqs in horticulture, he just couldn't get his head round the scientific names for the plant ident., even though I tied to help him out, errrrr, who is really the thick one???? No, I did feel a bit sorry for him as this was essential for the nvq, anyway there you have it.

  9. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Last comment removed by accident!

  10. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    I'll try again, it isgood to be in contact with another real gardener, I am in no doupt there is a lot of miss treated gardeners out there, very bad bigoted attitudes by people unfit to own these large estates, don't forget many of these places were handed on a plate to these people, from a very dubious past in many cases. Mine was a bit differant, I was sort of taken under a wing, and moulded into someone differant, not in a negative manner but yes, harshly certainly. In those 5 years I was definatly tought to stand up for myself and to argue my point, part of the job and I was expected to do so.
    In the end, I came out ok, that is a vast improvement on the old, and now I do believe gardening in general can bring out the best in people and should be taken seriously as an effective therapy against various illnesses and states of mind.
    I don't know much about the Guild of Proffessional Gardeners, I am sure it is a useful body to be part of it, I have learned to believe in myself as proper gardener, and the more I look around, the fewer of us I see, but I expect to be still learning this subject until the day I die, hopefully a while off as yet.

  11. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    It's really interesting reading your comments; there's always a tension between the need for autonomy and security in ones job of work. There was an interesting article in the Guardian about a statistical link between people who have low autonomy in their jobs and a shorter life. Some people opt more for the 'security' end of the spectrum but without a union to protect them, they are prime targets for exploitation and mistreatment. Not everyone can just leave their job, particularly as the benefits system will not support you if you leave your job voluntarily. I prefer to take my chances as a sole trader!
    Here's the article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/21/stressful-jobs-can-kill-study

  12. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    I can see this is a subject close to your heart, one you feel strongly abuot. We are both self employed, work sometimes fluctuates. My wife has an animal care business now but she once worked in the corporate world, we had a new car in the drive, and everything was payed for. This didnt make us happy, and I got a job in the botanic gardens here in Wales, so we moved out to where we are now. In spite of ups and downs of Self employment, we are all much happier, and never want to go back to conventional employment. It is much more important to find your own path through life then to follow the masses robotically, this is the only way to find what we all look for, what we need to be happy and content and happy with our lives and ourselves, so yes, a sole trader is living a risk, but I find the flexibility and having built a decent reputation just works well for me and I was never happy being employed, which I could have been if the Botanic Gardens didn't nearly fold as we moved, forcing me to continue as sole trader. Hasn't fate or whatever governs our path in life sometimes has a funny way of showing the way.

  13. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    Thank you! I'm glad it's working out well for you; I completely agree with following one's own path in life. :-) I visited the Welsh Botanic gardens in 2003- quite early on and it looked great.

  14. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Well I am glad I don't work there really, I like this sole trader thing, and I do know a few people who have, or do work there, and they are not happy bunnys. I will not say anymore because one of my customers is a trustee of the gardens, and I like working there as well as the odd free pass or two.


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