‘I have seen over and over how people’s lives can be transformed – put back together and changed for the better – by the richly healing rhythms of growing together in a garden.’
Extract taken from The Garden Cure: Cultivating Our Wellbeing and Growth
By Jan Cameron
Published by Saraband
Community gardens come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. Some can be several acres, others can be the size of a typical council house back garden. Some are managed as a part of a much bigger mental health, environmental or social organisation; some are national, some are small, individual and local. They can also vary in management styles. As part of a big organisation, some gardens have a paid staff team and have to adhere to company rules and guidelines, while others are managed by boards of trustees or committee and may have a very small staff team or a single worker. Then there are those that have no structure at all and are run democratically or even anarchically by a small group of unpaid individuals with no budget. They all involve volunteers and as such share a great deal of common experience. I have worked in all kinds of these settings and it is this commonality I would like to describe.
In these pages, I have distilled some of what I have observed and learnt along the way about the close interaction between horticulture and better mental health.
The garden itself is a wonderful metaphor for health. Organics in horticulture is all about creating the conditions for health rather than treating the symptoms of disease. It is easy to see the parallels with the human condition. In horticultural terms when we try to create a healthy growing environment, we look at good nutrition and regular watering specific to each plant’s needs. We need good hygiene routines, to prune out unproductive growth and concentrate energy on the healthy branches, to keep on top of the weeds, to encourage fresh air, with time to rest and room to grow and unfold safely. Does this ring any bells?
Here is just one story that illustrates how powerfully this can work. We will explore many such examples throughout the course of the book. (As mentioned before, every story and example in this book is drawn from the real experiences of different people, but I have distilled common elements of these into a single story – and I have always anonymised them.)
One morning Josh came into the garden and his body language was the picture of dejection. He wore a baseball hat firmly pulled over his face. His shoulders were slumped, his back was rounded and his eyes were downcast. He was carefully trying to avoid catching anyone’s eye or engaging with anyone. His body language was saying very clearly: ‘I am feeling very fragile and afraid. Please don’t come near me.’ When I watched him put his boots on I could see he was trembling. We knew from experience that this was not a good time to try and talk to him about why he was feeling low, so we assigned him a task in the garden as usual. His job for the day was to tie back the branches of the apple trees on the south-facing wall. Luckily, it was a warm sunny day.
Two hours later when I went to check on him he was fully engaged in the task. He was standing with the sun on his back, which was easing all his muscles, he had his arms outstretched on either side in order to reach the bits of the tree he had to tie up. His back had straightened, his chest had opened, his head had come up, he was breathing deeply and he was talking to the person standing next to him – because he had to, so that they could put the ties up together. It was like a lesson in several alternative therapies – yoga, Alexander Technique, tai chi, mindfulness, massage and talking therapies all rolled into one – AND the tree got supported and we got apples!
It’s that subtle combination of things that opens people up and helps them to talk and feel more at ease.
I refer frequently to four gardens that were also mental health services. The lessons learnt there apply just as readily to community gardens, allotment groups and indeed creative groups of many different kinds. I worked in these gardens for more than thirty-five years, and they are dear to my heart. Together, we cultivated them into healthy, thriving organic havens for people recovering from mental health problems – and indeed, as the adult ones were open to the public, they provided an oasis for anyone who came into contact with them. My hope is that these accumulated experiences may be of interest and use to you and those whom you may meet or work with, just as all gardens and all people can grow and flourish with a little attention and shared knowledge.
Throughout the book, I will refer to people attending these gardens as volunteers (with the exception of the children’s unit), and the gardens as therapeutic gardens as opposed to community gardens. By volunteers, I mean people who have made a personal choice to come to work in the garden without payment, with the hope of finding a safe space, some peace from their distress, and inspiration: places that neither look nor feel like a medical setting, but a place of work.
The gardens and the work that happened within them were the result of very dedicated and skilled teams of people who were willing to give their best. They were creative, curious, honest, and a privilege to know and work with.
I loved going to work and looked forward to every day. Even the difficult parts, like when someone was telling me about something awful that had happened to them, gave me the privilege of being trusted with something very special – despite it being about stressful and often deeply sad situations. I was always inspired by the courage that people showed. The world feels a better place to me with the knowledge that there are places where people feel safe enough to open up and share and support each other and believe in a future for themselves.
The beauty of working with people in a garden is that it is most definitely a place of work with a clear ‘firmly rooted’ agenda of ‘creating growth’ for the future. (As you may have realised by now, it is also a place that yields metaphors!) We, and others, benefit from it, but it is not about us. It’s a chance to have a break from our own problems and dilemmas and to get involved, immersed, absorbed in a completely different universe: the world of plants, the weather, nature and its many creatures. It’s both hard work and restful at the same time. After a day in the garden you feel pleasantly tired, rather than worn out. Gradually, your body becomes fitter and your mind begins to relax.
WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE COME HERE?
If I had a pound for every member of the public who came to visit a therapeutic garden and asked me this question in the last twenty-five years, I would be dining out every week. What kind of people come here? Their implication seemed to be that it couldn’t possibly be the kind of people they knew, and certainly not themselves. My usual response would be, ‘People like you and me. There is no special kind of person who comes here. We have professional people, craftsmen, teachers, doctors, plumbers, chefs, artists, manual workers, and some people who have never had paid work. We have visitors from a whole range of educational achievements, all ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and physical abilities’.
As one person in the garden noted, she had never worked with such a diverse group of people in her life. Usually we spend most of our lives with people in the same profession – whether engineers, architects, teachers, social workers or other occupations – or their client group, customers and suppliers. The mix in the garden makes for a different kind of learning experience in itself.
While out walking recently, I was thinking about this and suddenly realised that there was in fact a common denominator. People come to a therapeutic garden because they want their lives to be different. They have that very particular kind of courage that it takes to walk through the gates of a strange place and meet someone like me – someone they don’t know. Moreover, they have the courage to admit that their lives are not going the way they want them to, and that perhaps they need help to change things. I still don’t know after all these years whether I would have the courage to do that myself. The people I worked with taught me a language to describe their emotional inner journey and their recovery experience, especially when it followed a lifetime of abuse or trauma. They laid an easier path for someone who would come after them, and this helped me to work more effectively with the next person. Although we never go down the same recovery path twice, the person before often provided a gate or a stepping stone into the next person’s story, aiding a better understanding. Indeed, as everyone wore the same clothing – steel toe-capped boots and work jeans – people visiting the garden were often not aware of whether they were talking to a member of staff or a volunteer.
This book is a tribute to all those brave people and everything they were able to teach, however painful that process was for them. Hopefully many of them feel that by sharing their stories they’ve opened up possibilities for others to be helped, and that some good will have come out of their distress.
I have seen over and over how people’s lives can be transformed – put back together and changed for the better – by the richly healing rhythms of growing together in a garden.
If I contributed in any way to make the gardens I worked in better places for anyone to be in, then I feel grateful to have had that opportunity.
The Garden Cure by Jan Cameron is published by Saraband, priced £9.99