Gardening for mental health and well-being

Today we’re welcoming Sarah Birtles, founder of Tree of Life, the eco-friendly way to remember a loved one who has passed. Sarah is sharing her thoughts and experiences on why gardening has so many benefits for our mental health and well-being. 

Over to you, Sarah!

A sign reads "As I work on the garden, the garden works on me". Mental health benefits of gardening.

7 minutes to read

Why do people like gardening?

A few years ago I switched on the TV one evening and was greeted by Monty Don on Gardeners’ World. I sat and scoffed at what I saw – Monty’s unrealistic and unachievable garden. I thought that basic gardening was really difficult to understand, never mind getting results that look half decent. I wondered why people bother with gardening at all. There’s so much jargon, the plant names are confusing, it seems very complicated and if you pardon the pun, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and I definitely couldn’t see any mental health or well-being benefits of gardening!

Fast forward a year or so, and I was in a dark place. I had recently experienced terrible personal loss. I was struggling to cope day to day, wasn’t enjoying life and I’m pretty sure other people weren’t enjoying my company either. I had a headache that wouldn’t go away and after three days of that constant, dull pain, it was making me feel nauseous.

I glanced into the garden and saw a lot of weeds overtaking my pretty flowers. So, I thought to myself, twenty minutes of gardening wasn’t going to do me any harm. I got my trowel and knee pad out and set to work. Three hours later I came back inside feeling like a new woman.  The weight of the world had lifted from my shoulders and that headache….what
headache?!

I could smile again, I felt lighter and brighter, lifted. Not only had gardening helped my physical well-being, but it had drastically improved my mental health.

The power of nature

This experience of almost-instant health improvement got me thinking about how gardening is more than just making a space look beautiful. It is more than someone’s huge, gorgeous, expensive (and unrealistic, in my eyes!) garden. It is more than confusing jargon. It led me to the question “Can gardening be a path to happiness, to healthiness and maybe even to contentedness?”

It was this thought, along with my own personal experiences that spurred me into setting up a business, Tree of Life. We specialise in creating an environment in which people can plant a tree or flowering plant with the cremated ashes of a loved one who has sadly passed away. It’s such a powerful thing to do, as the healing nature of gardening can help to soothe the overwhelming feelings of grief, whilst you create a beautiful, personal memorial to a loved one.
 
a sapling growing from the ground on a green, grassy background

 

Gardening through grief

Most of us have felt the dark, hollow emptiness of losing someone we love. Sometimes the grief we feel is so overwhelming that we can’t see an end to the agony. Grief is an emotional process. It can be a long, unpleasant, painful process that we want to rush through as fast as possible because the pain is too much to bear.

However, gardening through grief forces us to slow down. It forces us to learn patience, a skill not often required in our busy day-to-day lives. It resets us to nature’s slow, steady pace. Nature goes at its own speed and has its own set of rules. We can’t rush it and we can’t alter nature’s path. It can be very refreshing to realise that some things are out of our control.

sarah kneeling in her garden with a cup of tea, contemplating the benefits of gardening for mental health

Gardening through grief also teaches us acceptance of the life and death cycle. Whilst there is no cure for loss, there is a way we can carry on and experience the best of the world.

Gardening for our wellbeing

I was asked recently what advice I would give to people who wanted to begin gardening but were not sure where to start. I thought for a moment and instead of suggesting people set off to their local garden centres to buy bedding plants, bags of compost and the like, I  recommended simply sitting in a garden or in a public green space.

It can sound trivial – just sitting – but I recommend this to you now. Just sit, listen, enjoy the stillness, and observe what’s around you. You might be pleasantly surprised. Observe what you hear, and see. What do you prefer? What are you drawn to? Do you enjoy the sound of the leaves rustling in a tall tree as it blows in the breeze? Do you marvel at the complex structure of a dainty flower with bright petals that lights up the green space around it? Is it the faint buzzing of insects as they drift about on the breeze? Or do you love that funny-looking plant that’s popping out from behind a bush?

view of a garden from within the foliage

Maybe you prefer a wilder space, that’s a little disorganised and free. Or something more tidy, organised and structured. Taking some time to explore what you enjoy about nature will help you to shape and plan a garden of your own as well as doing wonders for your soul. Whether you want to attract birds & bees, grow a tropical brush that creates a private space, or a lawn that could rival Wimbledon, just take a slower pace and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy being outside. If you loved creating it, you’ll love what you created. And maybe, just maybe, you will create more than a garden. Maybe you will create a positive new perspective for yourself.

About the author

Sarah is the founder of Tree of Life, the eco-friendly way to remember a loved one who has passed. Plant the ashes of your loved one into a tree or plant of your choice, creating a personal memorial. Tree of Life provides a range of different sized planting kits, suitable for indoor and outdoor use, for people and pets. 

Sarah lives in Yorkshire, and regularly practises yoga, as well as gardening, of course! She’s a busy mum to two-year-old Alfred, and they love going out for walks together, looking at different plants and animals.

Rewilding your garden

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read our rewilding article, all about how we can bring the principles of rewilding into our own gardens and community green spaces.

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