Thursday, 14 July 2016

Gardening as Therapy

Having read Tim Richardson’s column in the Telegraph last week, I got to thinking. His subject was regarding the supposed health benefits of gardening. As always, his job as The Horticultural ‘Medlar’ was to scratch slightly at the veneer of a topic, revealing a base layer of healthy scepticism together with an alternative view on the subject. As always, he again did this rather too well, if you ask me.

If the various contemporary approaches to health and well-being were to be ranked, a kind of therapeutic top ten, you would probably see the charts full of such hits as C.B.T, Mindfulness, M.B.S.R (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction), the modern-day anti-depressant (SSRI’s) plus a whole range of Green Care approaches. Green Care could probably be summed up as any activity which uses the great outdoors (horticulture, agriculture and animal care etc) as a therapeutic tool, enhancing our mental and emotional well-being through social, as well as physical exercise.  ‘Nowt wrong with that’ I hear you say!

As a (part time) horticultural therapist,  I am of course, an advocate of most Green Care approaches. Gardening is a great way of both improving and promoting mental and emotional well-being. If you ask me, little research is really required to prove that gardening is good for you: gardeners have been saying so for years! In fact, it’s probably the main reason gardeners do indeed garden! It simply feels good to be outside, in the fresh air, gently occupied with tasks closely-aligned to the seasons. The work of the gardener, and the speed and stress in which he or she works, is kept in check by both the seasons and the weather: you simply cannot rush nature along.

However, in Tim Richardson’s article, he does raise a few valid reasons as to why gardening should not fall blindly into a kind of Green Care vacuum, whereby it becomes to be seen as a vocation concerned primarily with encouraging a kind of ‘condescending caricature that horticulture is only fit for damaged people who require help.’  As with both C.B.T and Mindfulness (this decade’s darlings of the N.H.S), Green Care (especially the horticultural wing) has been becoming increasingly popular, with various projects seemingly popping up all over the place. Sometimes, it appears that all you need is some funding, a catchy name (Growing to Grow… Growing and Sowing etc) and voila, health and well-being are sure to follow!

However, as a hardened maintenance gardener, who has worked closely with the entire industry for many years, I can tell you from first-hand experience, gardening ‘proper’ is one of the toughest ways of working there is! I also know of many gardeners who say the same. Physically it is very demanding… more demanding and damaging to bodies than any of the building trades if you ask me.
Mentally too it can be very challenging. Working in one of the lowest paid, socially-isolating industries there is can be anything but fun and therapeutic. Just ask the charity Perennial who, for over 100 years, have helped countless individuals within the industry who have fallen on both hard surfaces and hard times! It’s an unforgiving industry where your over-worked muscles and joints determine both your usefulness, and your retirement age.

In looking at the perceived mental health benefits of gardening Tim Richardson makes a great analogy between human relationships and our individual relationship to the garden, and as he states, these relationships ‘do not always run smooth, and is it taboo to suggest that a garden can make you feel bad sometimes as well as good?’ I think we have to be very careful in simply reciting the mantra that ‘gardening is good for everyone’. Yes, working with nature, within the often-boundaried environment of a garden, can allow someone to experience elements of risk and reward: a gentle invitation to love and be loved back.  I have always thought that the care and nurturing of plants and animals gives one that opportunity. However, we do need to be careful we don’t limit the appeal of gardening, ‘portraying it as a branch of occupational therapy.’

I do share slightly Tim’s concern when he says that ‘we do not garden simply because it is good for us.’ Gardening is about so much more than that! It can be about everything from art and design to social and political history; from the study of the natural world and about our place within that world. There is of course the history of the great garden makers and the changes they have brought to our green spaces. Wars have shaped the history of our gardens: the fight for irrigation… the fight for post-war labour… wars over tulips… wars over thy neighbour’s fence!

So, in harking back to my introduction, at times, it does seem as though many things are being hijacked in the service to therapy these days: C.B.T has stolen much from ancient Greek Stoic philosophy; mindfulness has been ripped from the Buddha's Noble 8-Fold Path. 

Now gardening is at risk of going the same way, and if Tim Richardson is right - and for as long as the lowly-status of the care industry remains - narrowing its appeal in this way might only serve to dissuade even more young people from entering the profession.
'til next time!
le Jardinier

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