Watching a seed germinate, grow and then throw off flowers, fruit or vegetable is a form of therapy as old as mankind. Why then has it taken so long for the simple - and cheap - pleasure of gardening to be recognised as something that should be actively prescribed for people with mental health problems? As an alternative to taking medication or taking part in group therapy sessions, the idea of gardening as a prescribed therapy may seem a little offbeat to some. To others it has already proved its worth.
Until she started gardening at the age of 20, Annabelle Padwick suffered such severe anxiety she would struggle to leave her house. Ten-years on and she now regularly undertakes public speaking engagements as part of her campaign to spread the word about the benefits of “adult therapy gardens”.
“The aim is for gardening therapy to be prescribed alongside, or instead of, traditional approaches such as medication or group therapy,” explained Annabelle. “It was that joint combination of gardening and one-to-one private psychotherapy that totally transformed my outlook and mental health.”
Annabelle now runs her own social enterprise, Life at No.27, (named after the number of her allotment) aimed at getting people into gardening as a hobby, a therapy or, lets not forget, a way of providing your own food. She also acts as an Ambassador for the UK’s largest “gardening for health” charity, Thrive.
Just before the March 2020 lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Annabelle had just signed up her first two GP clinics to start referring patients to her as part of their medical care offering. Her therapy garden in Towcester, Northamptonshire is one of growing number of similar centres around the country, offering people the chance to get their hands dirty and their minds clear through gardening, all with the right level of support. While some centres had to close their doors due to the lockdown, most are now in the process of reopening or have already invited the gardeners back in.
According to Thrive, their programmes of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture can reduce depression, alleviate symptoms of dementia, improve concentration and reduce reliance on medication. While the claims are based, in part, on the personal experiences of those involved in the schemes, there is scientific research to back all this up.
Separate studies by Swedish, British and US scientist have all found that time spent in the garden helps reduce stress. A 2013 study for the Mental Health Review Journal found: “…people experiencing mental health difficulties reported that benefits include a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety and an increase in attentional capacity and self-esteem. Key benefits include emotional benefits such as reduced stress and improved mood.’ Another report by Natural England in 2016, came to very similar conclusions.
And of course gardening as a therapy can be equally effective whether it is done at home or in a specialist facility. Thrive, Life at No.27 and many other organisations work to teach people how to use their own garden as a tool to restore wellbeing and improve physical and mental health.
As we emerge out of the Coronavirus pandemic many of us lucky enough to have gardens will have spent the spring spending more time in flower beds and vegetable patches. For those who don’t have outdoor spaces there are always plant pots, hanging gardens or balconies to exploit. And with the lockdown restrictions being lifted all the time the possibilities of benefitting from gardening will only increase. For people like Annabelle the question of why to get involved in gardening doesn’t really need to be asked. As the old saying goes: “Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years.”