January is the time of year when, for us gardeners, a small ray of hope breaks through the grey skies. Not long now, I think, until I can start chitting my potatoes. A few early daffodils have bravely poked their necks above the soil. I know the snowdrops will soon be on their way. Especially with the mild, wet winter we have had, spring seems just around the corner. But I know the truth. The inevitable will happen: the cold will return, February always feels long, and winter will hang around like some kind of chronic illness.
For those of us who suffer from mental health problems, winter can be a difficult time. I had my own nervous breakdown last year. This culminated in me unable to do my job – I had to take a month off work and was confined, for long periods of anxious black time, to my house. Anyone who has gone to battle with their own inner demons knows it is a terrifying fight. You feel isolated, confused, angry, and unable to make yourself understood (especially to yourself). With the help of therapy, medication, pages of self-help books, and the desire to feel “normal” again, I started on my long path to recovery. While it has been a difficult journey, nothing has lifted my spirits more, or has made me feel saner, than my garden. Working with my hands in the soil, sowing seeds, or simply cutting my grass has improved my mental health more than I can express. Though it may sound cliched, my garden has been my sanctuary.
Therefore for me, this winter has been particularly rough. As the days have darkened my mental state has also become bleaker. There have been some reports lately about how beneficial gardening is for mental health. Gardening combines some of the best advice given to people with mental health problems: exercise more, interact with nature, engage in activities you find meaningful, be creative, and seek out people who have similar interests. In short, gardening ticks numerous boxes when it comes to improving the outcomes for those of us who struggle psychologically.
I can’t agree more with those studies which suggest that gardening lifts the mood and decreases anxiety. Last year I chose a particularly good time to have a shattered mind (as if there is ever really any right time to lose your mind). It was spring. The air was just beginning to warm up as the days stretched out their long amber arms. I remember sitting on an old and splinted wooden bench in the back garden. The buds on a nearby field maple tree were ready to burst into leaf. That’s when I saw it: the first bumblebee of spring. It wasn’t an epiphany, but it made me smile. And I hadn’t done that in a long time.
While I was off work, I threw myself into my garden. I felt like the world around me was a dangerous sea and my garden was a little green life raft. I cut a new, long bed out of the grass. I worked the soil until I couldn’t find a sliver of weed root. I barrelled tons of compost and poured it all over the garden to improve the structure of the heavy clay. I sowed seeds, bought more herbaceous perennials than I could afford, and scarified the grass like a man possessed. As I worked on the garden the garden worked on me. I could feel myself, for the first time in a long time, start to relax. As the days lengthened I could feel something inside me begin to lift – literally and metaphorically the clouds were breaking and more sun was touching the ground. I remember planting out pots of sweet peas to climb up a homemade wigwam. Nearby, my apple trees were in bloom. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt and my arms were warm in the sun. I knew then why I loved to garden and that, as long as I had access to a small patch of green, I would be okay.
Yes, I am on medication which is meant to control both anxiety and depression. I have also had many sessions of therapy. Both of these things I have found invaluable to my recuperation. And no, I would never suggest that someone replaces a good doctor with a tray full of seedlings. However, there is definitely something in nature that heals the mind. Not only has gardening helped me to get through a difficult period in my life, it is something I can enjoy when life is good. What I find so wonderful about gardening is that it is both beneficial to my health and enjoyable. This seems like rare thing in life. For example, everyone wants an athlete’s body but few people want to spend five days a week in the gym. Gardening, on the other hand, is both salubrious and gratifying.
I can’t wait to properly get back out and into the garden. I can’t for the grass to dry out and the soil to become workable. I can’t wait to get my tools out of the garage and my pruning shears in my pocket. I can’t wait, because I know that the best medicine for what ails me, is right outside my back door.
Tom Smart is a secondary school teacher who found his passion for gardening in the drizzle and mists of Scotland.