I have a background in mental health, both as a teacher and advocate for children within psychiatric settings and as someone who suffered, stress, burn out and depression. Some of this still resonates but most is now the past. My life now is that of a retired person with a great interest in gardening, biodiversity, nature, the wild and zen buddhist practice. I have sat zazen regularly for about four years and irregularly before that and I am a member of a local Soto Zen sangha. Growing Matters at Gilmerton House Kitchen Garden is a project I have volunteered with and been part of since its start.
Recently I have become involved with June (our Project Leader) and two other volunteers in supporting her to design a horticulture therapy programme. We need to apply for funding from various bodies who want some form of explanation as to how Horticulture Therapy works and what outcomes might be expected. I thought it might be useful to give a personal view on how coming along and being a part of his project has affected me and what I have noticed about how what ever it is we do down there seems to affect other folk. All of this will be subjective but I hope it may bring forth some recognizeable, but simple and useful insights.
I know from my past work and applying for funding that what often comes up is how to put a measurable value on a given therapy – how do we assess if it works, what are the outcomes, can we provide evidence? Of course one can conduct interviews and try and chart mood improvements over time, encourage reflective self-reporting, do qualitative research but a simple response might be well isn’t it just obvious – being outside in the open air just makes people feel better, more alive, doesn’t it? Most attempts to deliver a quantative piece of research often miss the point – a human being is a complex organism that in terms of body is in a continual dynamic state of flux, in terms of mind we are also looking at something extremely complex and changeable (and impossible to define), our personal narratives are massively affected by what comes up, but are also sometimes fixated with particular thought patterns and beliefs, so that any given moment where a response is given is liable to shift and variation. Bearing all this in mind, here are my thoughts and reflections.
When I walk through that battered old gate and step over the rather hopeful rabbit blocking board I put in place a while back, or rather just before I push that gate open, I am aware of a sense of anticipation, of joy at the prospect of what I will see and the pleasure of good collaborative company in such a setting – a moment full of potential.
For me, first of all, there is space and of course within zazen meditation we gradually appreciate how spacious and boundless our minds are. What we have at the Walled Garden is a safe space, and at the beginning it was an empty space, a fresh canvass. Picking up debris and plastic, cleaning up and taking care of a neglected place, working together in a simple litter-picking task felt like a very good start to things. This place is walled and in turn surrounded on three sides by some beautiful mature trees that seem to offer shelter and protection. I often look up from my work and marvel at how these tree shimmer in a breeze or catch a moment when the sun catches them, set against an infinite deep blue sky, and I am aware of how I am part of all of this, this is all part of me. It is a peaceful and joyous feeling and just as the trees and skies and all that is connected in this universe of ours provides the conditions for our lives so I feel the need to conserve and protect and offer support and help to nature and to others.
A key element of the therapeutic value I feel at the garden is collaboration with others, chat, laughter, a shared memory or joke, or sometimes simply working silently alongside one another at a task like digging out beds or hoeing. There is peace and pleasure to be found in working alongside on a joint project, and within this group there is something that binds us in supporting each other and a lack of overly ego driven behaviour. The atmosphere and the collaborations are gentle and supportive, with no great emphasis on competitive task achievement.
Actions, physical effort, being in touch with the motion and movement of your body, simply walking and being aware of each step and the physical sensations are well documented as bringing positive feelings, as is the sense of achievement at the end of a task. Merely completing a simple action or task gives one a sense of purpose and achievement.
Quiet times, moments of quiet reflection and just being there in the moment, taking a breath and breathing it all in – these are extremely valuable and life- affirming moments, moments of simple open awareness. Being with the movement of clouds, the drift and flight of a bird, watching the shadows cast on the walls, sensing the warmth that is held by them, noticing the ripples and wave patterns of tall grasses, becoming aware that all is occurring moment after moment and that we are in this occurring, part of this flow.
Being at the garden has allowed me to both witness and be part of the unfolding of a year through seasons and weathers and to come face up with natural reality. On a practical level June has provided us with a space and with a plan and direction that roots us in a less ephemeral way, but allows us to savour being and growing – the models are there for us in the seeds we plant and grow, in the apple trees and willow cutting we have planted and that have budded, fruited and leaved. We have a common goal to realize but we are also just simply there in the garden on any given day, working alongside each other, sharing life.
Some of the activities we have been involved in over the past year have been cutting willow at Myreside Willow and planting out over four hundred willow cuttings, planting apple trees, pruning the old apple trees and harvesting apples, digging out a border for specialist shrubs, planting shrubs, making the fruit garden, building compost bins with Harald, putting up the hut, learning about bees and starting our own hive with John, working with young people doing Saltire Awards, doing some basket weaving with Anna. All the while the garden is evolving as we collaborate and exchange views and ideas. Within all this activity there has been much to savour, much that brings happiness and joy to the heart – shadows on the wall, buzzards overhead, swallows swooping and diving, bees on the apple blossoms, autumn leaves gold lit by the sun, peacock butterflies in numbers in late autumn. And each session there is time for tea and cake, sharing bits of our life stories and supporting each other, understanding some of the difficulties others face.
And there is so much learning on a practical level too – sowing seeds, splitting plants, propagating, handling tools correctly, working to June’s garden plan and taking accurate measurements, discussion around different methods of vegetable growing and composting, pruning apple trees. All of these activities lead to a sense of accomplishment.
I hope this piece will shed some light on how Garden/Horticultural Therapy has a significant contribution to make to people’s well being and how being part of a collaborative group in this precious space can foster a sense of belonging, of being a contributor, of being supported and supportive and of learning both in terms of gardening and in terms of personal awareness and growth. In the end I feel that Growing Matters is all about connection – to ourselves, to others and to nature.