Outdoor Therapy for mind, body and soul

There’s currently a lot of ‘buzz’ about gardening and the health and well-being benefits of just being in the great outdoors. Gardeners have known for millennia about the health giving aspects of the natural world, but it’s taken Covid-19 restrictions to bring us to our senses, because that’s what being in the natural world can do.

What makes gardening so powerfully therapeutic? How can we benefit even if we’ve no outdoor space? Can gardening help us to cope with the challenges of social isolation?

By Dorothy Arnott

PICTURE: Dorothy Arnott

Gardens as sanctuaries 

The idea of gardens as sanctuaries, places of calm and safety, is embedded in many cultures throughout the world. The perfection and harmony of the biblical Garden of Eden and the Islamic paradise gardens are examples of sanctuary gardens, while we have our own plots, contemporary city park gardens and allotments, all of which perform a similar function.

We can garden almost anywhere, indoors as well as out. If you’ve a few house plants, now could be the time to pay them some extra attention, creating an indoor sanctuary, a place to sit and relax surrounded by the healing power of greenery and the cleaner, clearer microclimate plants such as peace lilies help to provide.

In our gardens, of whatever size, we can create a space of calm, safety and contemplation. For a busy family garden this might be a small area uncluttered by footballs or toys. In a larger garden it might be a simple, low maintenance spot, that won’t remind us of all the work needing to be done: secluded and comfortable to sit in with fragrant plants and possibly a water feature, ideal for rest, reflection or recuperation.

Slowing down, being mindful 

When we drop our busyness, slow down and observe our natural surroundings, we enter a more mindful state; heart rate and blood pressure reduce. Paying attention to our breathing in fresh garden air or focusing on a particular flower, shrub or tree for just a few minutes is remarkably grounding and restorative.

However, this is not the only aspect of gardening to approach mindfully. Hand weeding, grass cutting and propagating cuttings lend themselves to attending to the here and now and putting other concerns aside.

Mindful walking, preferably with bare feet on grass so that we are fully connected to the earth, is equally beneficial to well being.

PICTURE: Dorothy Arnott

Connecting to the natural world

To be connected to the natural world is both the greatest joy of gardening and one of its greatest challenges. Birds nesting, hedgehogs rustling, bees bumbling and insects pollinating in the garden are delightful. Less welcome are slugs, snails, caterpillars, rabbits, badgers and deer. How we manage our relationships with these creatures sensitively and naturally is demanding, but help us consider and reflect upon our role and responsibilities as an integral part of the world’s ecosystem. 

Connection with the natural world brings many benefits, whereas disconnection with nature – ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – results in higher rates of physical and mental illness, attention difficulties, and diminished use of senses. Gardening also assists our connection to other people: by sharing a passion and a language associated with an appreciation for the earth, and gardeners love encouraging others to join them.

Bringing out our (self) nurturing instincts

Nurturing is integral to gardening. As children some of us grew mustard and cress on damp kitchen roll or runner beans in a pot thereby learning the biology of seeds, about where our food comes from and, perhaps most importantly, how to look after seedlings.  

We can continue to learn lessons about self-care and nurturing from our gardening experiences: different plants have different basic needs for water, light, soil and space to thrive; some plants need support stakes while others benefit from hard pruning. This mirrors our individual need for the ‘right’ conditions in which to thrive, for support and for appreciating when we’ve ‘overdone it’ and require rest and extra nutritious food. In tending our gardens, we are not only nurturing our plants… 

It’s important to consider what sort of gardening suits our circumstances best: If we prefer an orderly garden or have physical limitations, taking on a large untamed garden or an allotment plot is probably not wise. Accepting our limitations with grace and the abundance of the garden with gratitude are key lessons, as William Wordsworth said: “Let nature be your teacher”.

Acceptance and Resilience

A garden grows people as well as plants. Whilst mindfulness helps us to move to greater acceptance of ourselves, gardening can help us to accept things we can’t control. Most gardeners are philosophical, we have to be; we can’t control the weather, we cannot grow all the plants we’d like to because of the soil or the situation of our garden. As we practise acceptance of weather related threats to our gardens – such as, late frosts, summer droughts and unexpected high winds – it helps us gain perspective and resilience in the face of ups, downs and losses in other areas of our lives. Small spaces and limited resources make us creative as gardeners, another ‘lesson for life’. The dying plum tree can become the support for a fragrant, vigorous rose or a spectacular clematis; loss can lead to something new of beauty and value, a reminder of the benefits of acceptance and renewal in our own lives.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” said Rachel Carson, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Expanding our abundance, generosity and vitality 

On my bathroom windowsill are tomatoes, pot basil, coriander and dill seedlings – abundance! The herbs could remain there – the tomatoes will be ‘potted on’ outdoors and extra plants given to friends, family and neighbours. At harvest time vegetables can be preserved and stored as well as being shared. Bunches of flowers fresh picked from friend’s gardens or allotments are always welcome, as are bunches of seasonal hedgerow plants. Nature is plentiful, full of vitality and encourages generosity.

Gardeners too are generous: with cuttings, seedlings, and advice. They’re passionate, seeing potential where others might see mud and muck, philosophical about loss and regeneration, and, research suggests, physically and mentally healthier than non-gardening peers. 

A garden grows people as well as plants

Even without outside space we can all benefit from windowsill or window box gardening. In these strange days of restricted movement there are opportunities for vicarious gardening online and TV with updates from Sarah Raven at her garden in Perch Hill, Monty Don at Long Meadow and various gardening related films. Maybe you have a copy of The Secret Garden?

Renewing our sense of awe and gratitude

Lastly, gardening, along with being outside in nature and observing our surroundings mindfully, connects us to a sense of wonder. The first snowdrops emerging from frozen ground, the delicacy of apple blossom, the amazing floral colour palette, the stupendous growth
of squashes and pumpkins from such small seeds… there’s always something to be overawed by, grateful for and – when the year is over, and plans for the next year emerge like tiny green shoots, symbols of hope and rebirth – something to celebrate.

The lesson l have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others is, “to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives”.  – Gertrude Jekyll (Garden Designer).

Dorothy Arnott is a Hasting- based psychotherapeutic counselor and gardener 

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