To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow

"To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow" is allegedly a quote by Audrey Hepburn. It sounds twee to me, even when I imagine it in her voice, but there is a really interesting current of truth running through it. I was weeding the other day and realised that if there was one thing I would recommend to anyone with what are coyly titled 'mental health challenges' it would be gardening.

I feel dealing with mental health challenges might be an area where I have something to add. I have always been interested in mood, thinking and feeling. I am studying mental health nursing at the moment, I have close friends and family who suffer from mental illnesses, varying in both type and severity and I have what gets termed 'lived experience' as well (if I were a therapist I would interrupt to ask me why I needed to justify myself. This is my blog, I shouldn't feel the need to recite credentials and yet.... Why?)

Anyhow, there are a bunch of things that are commonly agreed to promote good mental health, with the potential to aid in managing mental illness and promoting recovery

  • Adequate exercise
  • Appropriate sleep
  • Diet - plenty of fibre, not too much sugar or saturated fat
  • Avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs
  • Medication as prescribed
  • A sense of connection
  • A sense of self-efficacy
  • Mindfulness/meditation

And I actually think that gardening helps with every single one of these. Exercise is obvious to anyone who has ever been in a garden but sleep is more interesting. I know when I was very depressed sometimes I could get myself into the garden in the morning. Morning sunlight is thought to assist with regulating mood and daylight, again, especially morning light, helps to regulate circadian rhythms. If you find it hard to wake up in the day and impossible to sleep all night (common in situations of emotional distress) daylight can help, which means gardening can help, because gardening is a reason to be out in the daylight.
When you are gardening, grow veggies. If you can't grow veggies then grow herbs. It just might help you eat if that is difficult for you and if eating is too easy then having dirty fingers/grubby gloves means it's easier to pause. It's also easier to concentrate on the goodness of your food, rather than getting caught up in it's emotional value if you cook fresh food with herbs you grow yourself.
Gardening is never going to knock out your substance abuse habit or convince you to take the meds that cut your highs and lows and make you feel flat. Spending time in 'nature' is well known to increase feelings of connectedness and gardening is no different. It can increase feelings of self-efficacy too. Self-efficacy was one of the most important things when I was really depressed and anxious. I felt I couldn't DO anything, particularly anything that made a positive difference. Having seeds germinate, protecting a seedling from snails or staking a tomato plant was an observable thing, and I did it. It mattered to the plants.
Like exercise, mindfulness and meditation are a part of gardening. Weeding requires a type of mindful concentration but allows for meditative states. My lovely wise mother tells me that all the biggest decisions of her life were made while weeding. I tell my kids that it's a bit like playing the type of repetitive puzzle games that I play - I play them compulsively when I'm falling apart.

I could probably provide scholarly references for all of that but what I can't back up, but know in my bones, is that gardening helps. When my life is spinning wildly out of control, I can work methodically to get the clovers out of the lawn. When study stress is threatening to take over my life I joke to my uni friends about procrastigardening, Weeding is a relatively healthy and functional way to channel compulsivity, a manic episode could see trees pruned, lawns mowed, and who knows what built while depression might see nothing worse than more weeds than normal. This is starting to read like an impassioned plea for more community gardens and for employee flexi time for gardening but I actually think those things would enable us to handle our stressful lives a bit better.

So this thinking all came about when I was gardening the other day. I was actually marveling at how things are growing, even in the depths of winter, and pondering the wonderfulness of my terrific friends. My friends (you know who you are) are the people who would help me hide the bodies - both metaphorically and also possibly literally. I was thinking about how they pop up like four leaf clovers, lucky, rare and precious. I pick four leaf clovers when I find them, and feel smug and lucky, a similar feeling I have about my wonderful support network. As I was thinking these nice but somewhat self-congratulatory thoughts I came across a FIVE LEAF CLOVER. Never seen that one before!

This slightly chewed, odd, mutant miracle is for D.

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