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)

30 Days Wild, Days 3 to 8: our family focus on wellbeing

Delightful British summer

Well! What weather we’ve had this week… Not exactly the delightful British summer we always hope for, but then we’ve had some amazing days in the last couple of months. When the weather turns bad, it can be hard to think of ways to connect with nature when you have a young baby, without having to don the waterproofs and wellies, and wrapping baby up in all manner of layers (then CONSTANTLY worrying that baby is too hot/too cold/wet/etc.). For me, taking part in 30 Days Wild is not just about connecting myself more with the natural world, but also finding ways for Archie to also benefit from the goodness the wild has to offer, as we both focus on wellbeing (well, he kinda just focuses on milk and toys, but hey!).

 

Five ways to wellbeing

A report published in 2008 identified five actions to improve wellbeing:

  1. Connect
  2. Keep active
  3. Take notice
  4. Keep learning
  5. Give

Getting stuck into 30 Days Wild, I’ve had these in the back of my mind when deciding what Random Acts of Wildness to do each day. I’ll be going into more detail on these soon, looking at studies The Wildlife Trusts highlight that demonstrate how nature can contribute to each of these categories to improve wellbeing.

 

Our Random Acts of Wildness, Days 3-8

Day 3: Another visit to our favourite local National Trust property, Tyntesfield. My mum was staying with us and she loves the place too so it was a fun, easy excursion for all of us. It really has something for all the family: beauty in nature, architecture, and gardens, easy spots for feeding baby and play breaks from the buggy. This time, we got active and took notice: we explored further on foot and found parts we’d never visited before. I turned green with envy at the gorgeous kitchen garden. I’d absolutely love to have such an organised and productive area of our garden, however small!

Day 3: Another visit to our favourite local National Trust property, Tyntesfield. My mum was staying with us and she loves the place too so it was a fun, easy excursion for all of us. It really has something for all the family: beauty in nature, architecture, and gardens, easy spots for feeding baby and play breaks from the buggy. This time, we got active and took notice: we explored further on foot and found parts we’d never visited before. I turned green with envy at the gorgeous kitchen garden. I’d absolutely love to have such an organised and productive area of our garden, however small!
30 Days Wild day 3

Here’s a little gallery of our DSLR photos from the day – mostly taken by hubby on the Nikon D7100, post-processed in Photoshop.

 

Day 4: Getting to know my fruit trees, learning about when and how to prune them (bad weather again). When we bought out house, it already had a fig tree, olive tree, and what I thought was a peach tree in the back garden. It turns out the peach is an apricot tree – big oops! from the supposed biologist…!!! The apricot was never trained and is now out of control and not fruiting well, and the olive has become rather unruly where I would prefer it provided some form of screen, so both of these need attention. I’ve never pruned a tree and the last thing I want to do is do them any harm…so learning was in order. Now I feel much more confident and informed as to what is required and when 🙂

(I was bought the book below as a present – you can buy it here)

Day 4: Getting to know my fruit trees, learning about when and how to prune them (bad weather again). When we bought out house, it already had a fig tree, olive tree, and what I thought was a peach tree in the back garden. It turns out the peach is an apricot tree – big oops! from the supposed biologist…!!! The apricot was never trained and is now out of control and not fruiting well, and the olive has become rather unruly where I would prefer it provided some form of screen, so both of these need attention. I’ve never pruned a tree and the last thing I want to do is do them any harm…so learning was in order. Now I feel much more confident and informed as to what is required and when
30 Days Wild day 4

Day 5: Learning about native and tropical marine life at Bristol Aquarium, as it was STILL raining. It turns out my mum had never been to an aquarium before (Archie has already been several times – annual membership oh yes!). She loved it and as Archie gets older he notices and enjoys more of it which is lovely to share. We were lucky to be near the seahorses when they were fed. They rose towards the surface all together in a beautiful display, and you could hear them eating with loud POPs as they took mouthfuls.

Day 5: Learning about native and tropical marine life at Bristol Aquarium, as it was STILL raining. It turns out my mum had never been to an aquarium before (Archie has already been several times – annual membership oh yes!). She loved it and as Archie gets older he notices and enjoys more of it which is lovely to share. We were lucky to be near the seahorses when they were fed. They rose towards the surface all together in a beautiful display, and you could hear them eating with loud POPs as they took mouthfuls.
30 Days Wild day 5

Day 6: A brief nature fix today in between breaks in yet more rain… I seized the opportunity to dead-head my roses and create a small home-grown bouquet for our living room, bringing the outdoors in. Both these activities felt almost meditative so although brief, they were good for heart and mind.

Day 6: A brief nature fix today in between breaks in yet more rain… I seized the opportunity to dead-head my roses and create a small home-grown bouquet for our living room, bringing the outdoors in. Both these activities felt almost meditative so although brief, they were good for heart and mind.
30 Days Wild day 6

Day 7: As we’ve had a bit of a learning theme this week, Archie and I continued this today with a learning walk around Clifton and Durdham Downs. It was a sunny but blustery afternoon, so we were certainly connected to the elements (hello windburn…)! There was a lot of wildlife out: we saw four grey squirrels and many different bird species. Swifts wheeled in the sky above us; their elegant scythe-shaped wings giving them incredible manoeuvrability. A pied wagtail flitted and hovered over patches of grass presumably nibbling tasty insects. Only in the last few weeks have I noticed their flight pattern – it’s actually very pretty. They flutter and change direction in a delicate way that reminds me a little of a hummingbird (humour me slightly!), with their long tail waving behind. Around the city you tend to see them in car parks or the edges of pavements; if you see one in a garden or park do take the time to notice how they move. We also saw butterflies in the meadows that now fill a number of areas around the Downs.

Day 7: As we’ve had a bit of a learning theme this week, Archie and I continued this today with a learning walk around Clifton and Durdham Downs. It was a sunny but blustery afternoon, so we were certainly connected to the elements (hello windburn…)! There was a lot of wildlife out: we saw four grey squirrels and many different bird species. Swifts wheeled in the sky above us; their elegant scythe-shaped wings giving them incredible manoeuvrability. A pied wagtail flitted and hovered over patches of grass presumably nibbling tasty insects. Only in the last few weeks have I noticed their flight pattern – it’s actually very pretty. They flutter and change direction in a delicate way that reminds me a little of a hummingbird (humour me slightly!), with their long tail waving behind. Around the city you tend to see them in car parks or the edges of pavements; if you see one in a garden or park do take the time to notice how they move. We also saw butterflies in the meadows that now fill a number of areas around the Downs.
30 Days Wild day 7

Day 8: An odd day with random naps, a Dr’s appointment, and many household chores so my act of wildness today was to write some poetry when I had some space and time while Archie napped. I’m happy with the beginning, but we’ll see how it progresses. Whatever it turns out like I will share – you’ve got to just get these things out there sometimes, don’t you?! I’m not sure which of the Five Ways this might incorporate, I think mostly taking notice as I was imagining what sensing nature for the very first time might feel like.

Day 8: An odd day with random naps, a Dr’s appointment, and many household chores so my act of wildness today was to write some poetry when I had some space and time while Archie napped. I’m happy with the beginning, but we’ll see how it progresses. Whatever it turns out like I will share – you’ve got to just get these things out there sometimes, don’t you?! I'm not sure which of the Five Ways this might incorporate, I think mostly taking notice as I was imagining what sensing nature for the very first time might feel like.
30 Days Wild day 8

That’s it for now, keep sharing your Random Acts and think about the Five Ways to Wellbeing – how do you focus on wellbeing?