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)

Taking part in 30 Days Wild 2017

Wild Happy Well is taking part in 30 Days Wild!

The Wild Happy Well family is taking part in 30 Days Wild! Here on the blog I’ll be writing about our wild adventures – our Random Acts of Wildness – and how I think it’s improving our nature connection. See Part 1 of my post on how Nature improves our health and wellbeing if you’d like an introduction to the evidence. I’ll share our photographs so you can get an idea of what we’ve been up to and the nature we’ve seen in our local area, plus tips on simple easy ways to connect with your nearby nature.

The Wildlife Trusts’ scheme

30 Days Wild is a scheme run by The Wildlife Trusts that aims to get people more connected to nature in order to benefit from the health and wellbeing boosts that science shows us nature provides. It also helps people and families learn about the nature around them which will hopefully help the next generation care for the world around us, protecting and preserving our biodiversity. By signing up to and taking part in 30 Days Wild, you can be inspired by the many ‘random acts of wildness’ they suggest and get your paws on some fun materials to make taking part even more fun for all the family!

Peony at Tyntesfield, taking part in 30 Days Wild
Day 1: A stunning display of flowers at Tyntesfield, like this gorgeous peony.

Getting into your wild swing!

I think the key with really engaging with this scheme is consistency – achieving regular exposure and connection with nature, even if only for a short duration. After all, we know that the first 5 minutes or so in nature can give the greatest benefits. This is why I’m not going to be putting pressure on us to go on enormous expeditions, but instead carve out quality moments in which we can really be present. With a young baby some days you are just too tired to even get out of the house, let alone go on a long walk or pack us all up to go somewhere further afield. So, whether it’s meditating in the garden, arranging some flowers, or even just a quick walk around the block noticing the trees, flowers, birds and bugs, taking part in 30 Days Wild we’ll do SOMETHING to connect with our nearby nature.

WHW’s first few days

On Day 1 of taking part in 30 Days Wild, my mum, Archie and I visited the National Trusts’ property Tyntesfield near Bristol. It was a beeeeautiful sunny day and we saw many stunning displays of flowers, walked around the grounds, and rested beneath lush leafy canopies provided by the mature trees. Day 2 was a tired day for me and it was quite rainy so we stayed in until both the weather and I had perked up when went for a walk around our village for Archie’s late afternoon nap. We admired flowers in people’s gardens and walked through a local community park where my mum searched for four-leaf clovers. She has a gift of being able to spot these genetic rarities and enjoys peering over the green leafy spread. Having not found any for over a year, she found five in about 10 minutes!!! She believes that they bring good luck, and she found one for each member of our immediate family, so hopefully it’ll be a healthy, happy and well summer for all of us!

Four-leaf clovers, taking part in 30 Days Wild
Four-leaf clovers my mum found during a walk in the park.
Under the leafy canopy at Tyntesfield.
Resting under the leafy canopy at Tyntesfield.

 

If you’re new to Wild Happy Well, find out what I’m about here.

Today’s task: We’re a few days in but it’s still not too late to sign up to 30 Days Wild! Will you go for it? Have you done it before, and if so did it benefit you in some way?