They don’t call it the great outdoors for nothing! In a technologically driven world, never before have we been so divorced from nature thus unplugging from our devices and the hustle and bustle of digital noise is becoming increasingly important.
The Japanese have long recognised the healing power of green spaces with the practice of forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ becoming a cornerstone of preventative healthcare and a globally practised wellbeing activity. No bikini required.
We don’t always have to head off into the depths of the forest to get our happiness fix, though! Nurturing our mental health can start from our very own backyards. Yep, we’re talking about getting out in the garden and flexing our green fingers! Crocs… it’s finally your time to shine.
The benefits of gardening go far beyond making our grass greener. Tending to our outdoor spaces fosters our innate connection with the earth, creating a sense of order and calm in our lives by observing nature and the cycle of seasons. It’s a valuable source of relaxation that gets us out of our heads and into the present moment.
We’re exploring how taking a holistic approach to our wellbeing and immersing ourselves in a bit of green-thumbed therapy can help keep our mental health in check.
Sunlight improves our mood and is conducive to a good night’s sleep, so when it comes to looking after our mental health, getting outside and lapping up the sunshine is a sure-fire way to forget about the stressors of daily life and get a dose of that all-important happiness.
Much like hitting the gym, gardening is a positive habit to build into your day. All that raking, digging and weeding gets your muscles moving and your endorphins flying. If you’re feeling lethargic, a productive hour in the garden can provide an effective workout while putting minimal stress on the body.
A sense of achievement and self-worth
Cultivating your very own green space can give you a unique sense of purpose. By giving it your time and energy, you get to reap the fruits of your labour – whether that’s beautiful scented flowers, home-grown veggies or simply the satisfaction of giving back to nature.
Young or old, gardening doesn’t discriminate. Its rewards are for everyone!
Gardening is a natural stress-reliever and while it might not compete with combative sports like boxing, taking a trowel to the soil and pushing a lawn mower round can certainly help to let off some steam and calm your mind.
It’s a safe space
Plants don’t judge. Simple! For those struggling with mental health issues, those simple day to day tasks or socialising with others can be the most overwhelming. Gardening is a great way to get outside and channel that nervous energy into something purposeful, motivating and creative.
Cooperating with others and working towards a shared goal promotes a real sense of community. Mental illness can be extremely isolating and for those who struggle with confidence issues, meeting new people can be a daunting experience. Joining a communal gardening group can be a great way to nip fear and discomfort in the bud and connect with likeminded people.
We spoke to Brighton and Hove Food Partnership about their dementia-friendly gardening sessions and the work they do to help propagate mindfulness in the community.
Explain the work that the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership organisation does within the community.
The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership is a not-for-profit organisation which has 15 years’ experience using food to make positive changes in people’s lives. We help people and organisations to grow food, buy locally, cook & eat a healthy diet and waste less food. This ranges from running a community cookery school and growing vegetables in public spaces to campaigning about food poverty or helping food businesses get together to ‘ditch the plastic’ locally. Our work brings positive food experiences to people experiencing deprivation, isolation, poor health and other life challenges. Over many years we have found that growing, cooking and eating with others can make lasting changes to habits and behaviours which improve lives.
How can gardening benefit our mental health?
Many national studies and reports evidence the benefits of garden/ outdoor projects for physical & mental health (Kings Fund 2017, Natural England 2016, Growing Health 2014, Mind 2013), including reducing stress, depression, self-harm & destructive behaviours and improving social interaction, life satisfaction, self-esteem, meaningful activity and achievement. Evaluation of Brighton & Hove garden projects by the University of Essex found:
– 97% of participants reported improved happiness, mood or wellbeing
– 89% reported improved physical health
– 90% reported greater skills or confidence
– Participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by an average of 14% and physical activity levels across the group increased between 10% and 17%.
88% reported that coming to the garden would have a long-term impact on them in the future, while 16% noticed an improvement in life satisfaction after 3-6 months.
We have found that community gardening is a perfect way to achieve the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ – connect, be active, take notice, learn and give.
Here are some quotes from people who have been involved in our gardening projects.
“Sometimes when I am depressed I miss coming but I know that if I make the effort to get here I will instantly feel better.”
“I suffer from anxiety and the gardening sessions are calming and boost my mood. I leave feeling more relaxed.”
“It’s been worth more and more useful to me than all the psychotherapies I’ve had. It’s been amazing for me.”
“Now I’m at stage now where I want to get right stuck in with it all, I want to give something back now and I’ve come a long way in my recovery. It’s given me a different view of living in this city coming to gardens like this and I feel I want to move towards helping other people in gardens like this who used to feel like me.”
The Food Partnership helped to triple the number of community gardens in the city, from 25 to 75, and we estimate that 4,000 people volunteer across these community gardens each year. Since that time, we have focused on supporting existing projects to be stronger and more effective. In particular we have prioritised running and supporting gardens that work with vulnerable people, as they need more specialist expertise/ safety / skills and capacity. Between 2014 and 2017, we supported over 2,000 vulnerable people to improve their mental health, physical health and skills at therapeutic gardens across the city. With new funding for the Wellbeing Alliance we look forward to growing this further and reaching out to new areas.
Tell us more about the dementia-friendly gardening sessions…
The gardening sessions are a time for those living with Dementia and (sometimes) their carers to spend quality time in a glorious private garden tucked away in central Brighton. We tailor the sessions to suit those who come along in terms of their interests, energy and mobility. In the past activities have included things like transplanting seedlings, making pinecone bird feeders, planting bulbs and making nasturtium pesto from plants in the garden. We have incredible volunteers who work one to one with those that come along enabling them to participate in the activities on offer. Our volunteers are a key part of the success of the gardening group as they bring a wealth of experience and compassion which creates a warm and welcoming environment for everyone. Over time we get to know the participants really well as they share stories about their lives and we learn their particular sense of humour. We always have lots of tea and cake, you can’t garden without tea and cake can you?
How important is the community aspect of gardening?
People who attend our gardening groups tell us that belonging to one of these groups help them feel connected to their communities and give something back by tending green spaces around the city. We often chat with park users (for example in Preston Park) about food growing techniques and they share with us how much they enjoy seeing all the different plants growing and cropping through the year.
What are your top tips for getting started with gardening?
If you are keen to start gardening for wellbeing in Brighton, the good news is you’re in the right place. The city has loads of different supportive community gardens which you can find out more about through our directory: https://bhfood.org.uk/directory-map/
You can always visit a few different gardens to find the one that suits your availability and your particular interests. It may be that a shared meal is really appealing or you’re especially interested in gardening for wildlife, so exploring a few different projects will guarantee that you find the right one for you. If you live outside the area, maybe check out the projects that exist near you, many will have a Facebook page or even a website you could find through using a search engine.
Have you got a favourite story you can share with us from the work you’ve done with the gardening scheme so far…
It’s so hard to choose as I’ve been involved with community gardens in Brighton for nearly 7 years now and met so many brilliant people through this work. One lady from our last Dementia friendly gardening group does spring to mind though. The joy she expressed from week to week of visiting the garden was very moving. She would describe the Garden House (where we run the Dementia friendly gardening sessions) as the secret garden and the garden of her childhood dreams. One day she told us that she viewed her Alzheimer’s as a gift ‘because it enabled her to have beautiful experiences by being part of this wonderful group.’ It’s moments like that when I realise that what we create together is special – it’s garden magic!
How can someone get involved / volunteer?
I’d recommend looking at our website bhfood.org.uk and checking the directory; contacting the gardens that you’d like to volunteer at directly is a good way to find out more about what they and you, are looking for, through volunteering.