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)

Garden shame: the reality of home improvements on a budget

As I mention in my About page, my garden will feature on the Wild Happy Well blog. I’ve put off writing about it for a little while as, to be honest, I’m a bit ashamed of it… Our garden is not the blissful natural space I hope for it to be someday. Here, I open up about why it’s the state it is and our plans to turn improve it. Hopefully one day it’ll be a gorgeous sensory space for the whole family!

Not a natural utopia…

So. I love nature. I love gardens. I love plants and wildlife. But the reality of my own situation is sadly not that I live in a utopia of wild nature haven, plants spilling out of lucious beds onto rich grass, robins merrily dancing around the compost heap slurping up fat juicy worms… Nope. My garden is a building site. More specifically, it is the unhappy, injured bystander from our house extension works last summer. The house, our home, has been dramatically improved and this has dramatically improved the quality of our day-to-day life. It all happened just in time too for Archie’s arrival, something I am extraordinarily grateful for.

Lawn, sheds and mess…

 

Slow but steady

The garden had always been a blank canvas. When we moved in there was lawn, a couple of fruit trees (fig and peach, huge YESSSS!), that was it, except a sizeable slope away from the house. We added a big shed (Jon’s beloved workshop) and my greenhouse, some raised beds with some nice plants and some decking. We were making progress, slowly but steadily and we were fine with this. However, the building works saw the deck dismantled ‘temporarily’. With me heavily pregnant, the greenhouse was avoided more frequently, which played on my mind. Jon’s workshed became a general dumping ground for stuff, which is a source of continual mental torment to the poor chap (his shed is his sanctuary. I don’t take it personally). The lawn was constantly ignored and became long, lumpy, and littered with building materials. One of the beautiful raised beds Jon had carefully designed and built became filled to the brim with rubble and wood off-cuts.

Old decking drying out…

Garden that is no place for a baby

Archie’s arrival prior to winter had no great impact on our relationship with the garden. I cocooned myself indoors over the winter months, adapting to our new life as a family of three. But as the weather has brightened and warmed we’ve looked out of our lovely new bifold doors onto this poor wreckage of a garden with increasing longing and not a little bit of frustration. The sheer scale of improvements necessary to make it baby-friendly have been just too huge to consider. This is mainly because of the cost…the house works pretty much cleaned us out just at the point when I went on maternity leave and Jon had not long been made redundant (although this has given birth to the brilliant Blackfish Engineering – check them out!). Time is also of a premium with a new baby, especially your first: weekends where the both of you can get out there and crack on just don’t exist now, for a wonderful reason of course.

Building works leftovers, and beds filled with rubble

Hope and gratitude: moving forward

However, we are now making plans to turn it around and we are excited! One recommendation from a neighbour and one exceedingly good quote later, we have a plan of how it can be improved in a fairly cost-effective manner: new decking and old to be installed, plus leveling of the lawn. Add to those someone extraordinary generosity from both of our parents and we have a decent proportion of what it will cost to make the biggest improvements. Today is Day 1 of the works, hence the ‘before’ photos: I’ll keep you posted how it goes! It will, of course, still require time, effort and frugality on our behalf to make it really come together. But it is a huge step forward towards enabling the three of us to get outdoors this summer,  the first of Archie’s life. I am so keen for nature to be a significant factor in the experiences that shape his development. This may be the only summer I have with just him and I together on a daily basis, so having our garden accessible for him this year will be so valuable.

 

A sensory garden space

Thinking further forward, I would love our garden to become a haven for wildlife and a stimulating space for all of us. Last night, I had the delight of seeing my friend Joanna Grace of The Sensory Projects (http://jo.element42.org/) and we got to discussing sensory gardens. This is something I will be researching and writing about as I’ve always had a fondness for garden design. The idea of combining the creation of a (manageable!) wild natural space that is a delicious sensory treat for the whole family is too tempting to ignore. First up, I will checking out the Sensory Trust, and their sensory garden advice!

 

Today’s task: Have you created a delightful wild and natural garden space? Or do you suffer garden shame as I currently do? What does your garden give you – peace, tranquility, home-grown produce, eternal frustration, an exercise space?! Tell me about them in the comments and please do provide any good tips or advice!!!