The view from the olive tree: ecotherapy for better mental health

The dark summer

This summer I’ve discovered how a family going through emotional stress can be healed by their garden space. I need to be matter-of-fact about the next bit as it is not the focus of this piece but is necessary for the overall content and is the reason this blog has been quiet for a while (i.e. this is tough for me to write). Early in the summer, I miscarried at 10 weeks pregnant and then my son had repeated monthly hospital visits for his ongoing health condition. It was a hard summer: grief, sadness, guilt, worry, sleep deprivation, and ill-health all took their toll.  My mental health suffered and I experienced depression for the first time in years, although mercifully it was not as bad or as prolonged as I anticipated given what we were going through. With the love, support, and nurture of close family and friends, we came back to ourselves, carrying on as we simply had to do. There was no other choice. Thankfully, our garden has been an uplifting contant for my husband, son and I throughout what I think of currently as the darkest summer. The role our garden played in our recovery is akin to that of a dear friend – I don’t think we would be in such good shape now if we hadn’t had it there for us. That is the focus of this post, considering ecotherapy for better mental health.

We’d been encouraging wildlife into the garden over Winter and Spring (thanks to the fantastic birdfeeder Haith’s kindly gifted to us – see review coming soon). We couldn’t yet add plants as we planned to have the whole garden landscaped: lawn leveled, retaining walls with toddler-proof screening, plus a series of raised beds. This glorious work took place in late Spring, so it was as if the space was prepared for us, ready for us to fall into when the tough times arrived.

 

That’s essentially what we did. Where previously we had an extended building site in the garden, utterly unsafe for an increasingly independent and strong-willed toddler, we now had a sanctuary of green that was safe and welcoming. The planting came later in the summer; despite the empty beds, we still had my beloved roses, the fig, olive and apricot trees, plus I got stuck into growing some pumpkins – great for covering up unprepared beds it turns out! We would play football together, lie on the soft new grass and watch the clouds scud by, splash in the paddling pool on those balmy days, and water everything in sight (Archie’s chief interest and therefore responsibility!). I’d once considered taking the olive tree out but after some hefty pruning to open up the leaf ball, it suddenly became a beautiful and necessary part of the garden ‘room’. I recall one warm early evening sat on the new raised bed wall with my back pressed firmly against its trunk, so grateful for the support and shelter it was giving me. I envisioned the roots spread deep beneath me and the branches reaching up and over me, as if drawing me into its protection. That moment gave me a sense of connection to the natural world around me and comforting spiritual reassurance. I didn’t feel quite so alone, I could sense the bigger picture of my life returning.

Planting the beds was my favorite part, one I planned and anticipated for weeks. We had time off and, mercifully, some good weather. I’m no professional garden designer but planning and buying plants for a bed is possibly one of my favorite things to do. I thought about interest throughout the seasons, scent, flower and foliage colour, pollinators, safety for toddlers, and generally what I found beautiful. I’d also nurtured a passionflower from seed so I planned carefully where this little baby of mine would go. I’d also been given a beautiful sculpture of the Buddha to place somewhere that could be seen from both house and garden; a nice reminder to be mindful of the here and now, and all the wonderful things we have to be grateful for despite the challenges that life sometimes lays at our feet.

Almost every day we would be out there as a family, pottering, playing, and reconnecting with the simple joy of life, slowly releasing sadness, fear, bitterness and the toxic physical effects of those emotions. The garden helped me reconnect with my heart and trust that all would be well again, in time.

Ecotherapy for better mental health

It is well known that gardening can improve mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Recently, GPs in Shetland have been enabled to prescribe ‘nature prescriptions’ to help reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and increase happiness. According to the mental health charity Mind, ecotherapy is a range of nature-based activities that can support your mental wellbeing. See their helpful leaflet here. Ecotherapy can take so many different forms – it’s simply about finding ways that work for you to have some contact and interaction with natural things. Like nurturing a garden, a window box, or even some nice house plants. Doing a nature craft workshop, collecting some leaves, making a collage. Whatever you have the space and time for. Start small and work up – it can be so satisfying to see how far you’ve come. It is something you can do on your own, with family or friends, or with a local community group. Check out the following links if you would like to learn more about the beneficial effects of gardening and/or ecotherapy.

Gardening as a mental health intervention: a review (Clatworthy et al., 2013) – key findings include that gardening interventions significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and significantly increased self-esteem and attentional capacity.

RSPB article: Nature being prescribed to help health and wellbeing also reported in The Guardian (2018)

Mind: Nature and mental health (2015)