A new gardening course has recently been launched at the Mayfield Nursery in Southampton, the sessions as you would expect cover all the basics – plant types, soil testing, common pests – yet these horticultural sessions are designed for students who are suffering from depression, anxiety or low moods and provide a therapeutic relief. Gardening as therapy is gaining in popularity and recognition, the Mayfield Nursery received an NHS Health and Well-being grant for the therapeutic sessions. Recognising the therapeutic benefits of gardening is by no means a modern phenomenon, court physicians in the time of the Pharaohs would often prescribe walks around the gardens to mentally disturbed royals, and think of the landscaped gardens surrounding our Royal Palaces providing much needed therapeutic respite.
The national gardening-as-therapy charity “Thrive” has helped hundreds of people with mental and physical health problems; they have two central garden projects in Reading and London and then support over 900 gardening projects across the UK. Thrive’s central vision is to enable those touched by a disability to transform their lives using gardening. Last year Thrive’s Chelsea Flower Show garden won a gold medal, and plants were grown at Thrive gardens by people with severe depression or Alzheimer’s disease and those who are recovering from strokes or brain injury or who have learning difficulties. Nicola Carruthers, the chief executive of Thrive explains how they work “you can have a window box, with one tomato plant, and you will still benefit: that seed needs to be looked after, and by taking responsibility for something you can ultimately take pride in yourself again. We’ve seen people with depression who can’t speak when they come to us, but who have ended up reducing their medication after working in our garden.”
There has even been academic research into the use of gardening as therapy, at Loughborough University Dr Jo Aldrige studied patients using gardening for its therapeutic benefits, she says “it was purposeful without being taxing; and it taught new skills. A lot of the people we talked to described it as a bit like the calm brought by meditation. Some said that it should be on prescription — and we found that some forward-thinking GPs were referring patients to gardening projects.” Another 16-year study in Australia revealed that those who did daily gardening even cut their risk of getting dementia in later life.
Of course, we can all benefit from gardening’s unique combination of the physical (fresh air, vitamin D and exercise) and the psychological: the distraction of a purposeful task plus the calming effect of nature. Like any aerobic exercise it helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and most importantly – we think – it boosts endorphins, our body’s good-mood chemicals.