Get some fresh air and reconnect with nature, says horticultural therapist Caitriona Kelly.
1 Happiness is . . . . digging in the dirt
"A gardener must own a nail brush," my late friend Sue had exhorted one morning as I sat at her kitchen table busily liberating compacted soil from under my fingernails. She was right. A nail brush is a must. That said, getting your hands dirty can make one happier. Research by Dr Chris Lowry at Bristol University has revealed that a bacterium in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin, which in turn decreases anxiety and elevates mood. Little wonder then that we have such a happiness deficit in society when we've so little contact with life-giving soil.
Ditch the gym membership and get out in the garden. As anyone that has dug soil or lumped a barrow of muck around the place will know, growing and gardening is a great multi-muscular exercise that involves lots of bending, stretching and load-bearing to improve general muscle tone and prevent osteoporosis. It will also improve cardiovascular function. Above all you get out in to the fresh air and get some sunlight on your skin and vitamin D in to your body.
3 Stress Relief
In a field experiment, thirty people performed a stressful task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading. These findings provided the first experimental evidence that gardening can promote relief from acute stress.
4 Experiencing the present, as it is
Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques focus on enabling the individual to experience the present, as it is, by working with bodily sensations. Our tendency, when experiencing uncomfortable emotions, is to want to push them away, by means of avoidance and distraction. Horticulture brings us into the present as we engage in activities which keep us grounded, taking us "into our hands". One activity automatically leads to another. How many of us have decided to carry out one small task in the garden to find that hours have gone by in the moment by moment unfolding of time?
5 Growing and nutrition
Research shows that children and adults who grow some of their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, show higher levels of knowledge about nutrition and are more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives, Growing your own veg gives you access to seasonal food that is rich in vitamins and trace elements, and because it's truly fresh it's at its most nutritious (and tasty).
6 Sowing hope
It's summer now, and the garlic I planted in winter is just about ready. I'd sown it in November in the days immediately after the death by suicide of an old boyfriend. The cloves had sat looking at me for weeks, and each day I passed them, promising myself I'd do it soon. Sure, it was too cold out. Too wet. Too early. Nearly too late.
As the numbness gave way to grief, I found myself outside, clad against the Leitrim wind and rain, spade in hand, shovelling barrows of rotted manure from field to raised bed and back again. I removed stones, forked through clay, dug, raked and hoed, until I felt ready to lay them out in three neat rows; the purple tinge against the dark earth a promise of life ahead.
7 Growing for Mental Health
The therapeutic benefits of gardens for people with mental ill-health have long been recognised. In 1768, Dr Benjamin Rush, considered to be the first psychiatrist, maintained that "digging in the soil seemed to have a curative effect on the mentally ill." In 1880 Dr Thomas Kirkbride, founder of the American Psychiatric Association described working in a garden setting as "one of the best remedies; it is as useful in improving the health of the insane, as in maintaining that of the sane."
It is this propensity for horticulture to both heal, and promote health, in equal measure that makes it such a powerful therapeutic tool. When I asked a group of 15 adults in a therapeutic horticulture session about how it helps them the answers included: "It gives you hope…when, maybe, you don't have any," says one woman.
"You nurture something, the way you should be nurturing yourself…but can't… because you're too depressed," says a young man.
"It gets you out of your head…into your hands," says another.
8 Growing with the flow
Flow is a subjective state that exists when an individual is totally involved in an activity and is characterised by enjoyment, self-motivation and feelings of self-worth. Task oriented activities are the hallmark of all gardening and therapeutic horticultural programmes, lending themselves perfectly to being adapted and graded according to the individual's needs in terms of their capabilities and expertise.
9 Taking action
One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties at some stage in our lives in Ireland. Anyone who has experienced depression will be all too familiar with the way it can leave one feeling depleted of energy and lacking in motivation, such that moving oneself to initiate even the seemingly simplest of tasks can constitute an extraordinarily difficult feat.
Lethargy and decreased motivation contribute to a cyclical of negative thinking, rumination, a characteristic of depression. Lethary leads to procrastination. Tasks are left undone, and objects remain unmoved, taking on a negative force; embodiments of latent potential. The key to unlocking this potential is to take action, and carrying out horticultural tasks necessarily involves action.
10 Cycles of nature
Horticulture brings us into direct contact with the cycles and rhythms of nature. American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author E.O. Wilson, refers to the innate affiliation we, as humans, have with nature in his biophilia hypothesis. Wilson argues that our long history as subsistence hunter gatherers and farmers (99pc of human history) has shaped how we think, feel and function. He states that "the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated world". Providing the opportunity for people experiencing mental health difficulties to re-establish a connection with the natural world, can in and of itself provide a catalyst for healing, especially in a world where every day communication is dominated by technology.
* Caitriona Kelly, horticultural therapist with GIY is appearing at the annual Bloom Festival this June 1st to 5th for a series of expert lead talks, debates and discussions on food in Ireland. All the talks and discussions are free to attend for visitors at the Bloom Festival. GIY can be found at site number 35 and for further details see giy.ie