Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Inspiration From A Devon Hillside.

Last Sunday, during a lovely stay in Devon, I was asked to go and see a community garden and project and having asked a few questions, very quickly agreed with pleasure.
Now I have banged in and will continue to do so, about how vital gardens and gardening is for mental health. There are many who, from knowledge of the effect on their own mental health, will agree with that, and I am at the front of that group, constantly advocating for gardens and gardening to be socially prescribed or self prescribed. However, this garden supports people who not only are struggling with mental health but who are often socially isolated and struggling to make sense of a system alien to them. These people are the veterans of war, our ex military men and women.
Now I am a pacifist at heart and I had a conversation over the weekend with an ex-military person who said to me "I am a pacifist too-I joined the military to advocate for peace." There was a conversation I never thought I would have in a garden half way up a Devon hillside in the pouring rain, and one that has really got me thinking.
But back to the garden.

The garden is on an allotment plot in a tiny Devon village and is run by a group who have been working with this group for a good while but recently lost their permanent space and so decided to create one that was accessible to all. A space where people struggling with the situations they have found themselves in can come, sit, drink tea and eat biscuits, grow some food, put their hands in the soil and chat. And that is what is so vital and why gardening as a prescription is so great.
When you are gardening, your mind is focussed on a job that is often repetitive, making your brain concentrate on that repetition and making anything else secondary to that repetitive work. Whilst the brain has settled into the pattern of the work, what happens is conversations become subconscious, people relax and words flow. Conversations that would seem impossible in a room, with chairs and tables and walls, suddenly begin to happen. People in this situation are more perceptive and more understanding, allowing the conversation to go beyond comfort zones, discussing anything and everything from politics to mental health whilst in the background the repetitive work continues. These conversations can seem almost unworldly when you are in them. There is no anger, although often there is deep emotion. Tears can flow. Deep breaths are taken and silences appear although never the uncomfortable silence that happens in a room. Real listening and deep understanding take place. Worlds that otherwise might never meet join up and are often permanently knitted together. And all the while, the repetition of the physical activity keeps the space safe, comfortable and open.
For people struggling with their mental health, on whatever scale, this is a place where confidence grows through these conversations. The feeling of being listened to, of being heard and understood, fosters a feeling of relief and a belonging in the world. A feeling that whatever happens there is strength and a safe space with others to retreat to if needed. A feeling of belonging and making a difference. It is an extraordinary phenomenon and one that as a facilitator is humbling to say the least.
As someone who has benefitted from this type of horticultural therapy both as a participant, albeit unknowingly, and as a facilitator, that understanding of the difference it can make to a vulnerable person, is something I will fight for.

Somewhere to shelter from the rain, surrounded by a newly planted orchard , drink tea and feel safe is vital.

And so I found myself on a rainy Devon hillside, surrounded by allotments, drinking tea and asking myself why this isn't something available to all. For these ex military men, all struggling to come to terms with the horrors of war, disability, the benefits system and feelings of isolation, this garden is becoming a safe space. A space where they belong and are creating that supportive community that will continue to support them in the years to come. But don't we all need this?
I think so. But I also think we need to fight for this to be seen as part of mental health recovery. Surely all hospitals should have a garden where long term patients can come and gently potter whilst meeting other people in similar situations. And surely all doctors should be linked to a garden for social prescription. Wouldn't our villages, towns and cities benefit from those safe spaces of beauty, kindness and hope?
I left the garden with hope in my heart and joy in my steps. It might be a crazy world out there but finding these extraordinary people, making change in and for their own community made me realise just how lucky I am to be a part of a quiet revolution that is centred around kindness.

Apple blossom everywhere. Even on a rainy day the space is soothing.


  1. Everything you say here is right on the nose. As someone who has suffered depression for much of my life, gardening helped me get out of my head and zen out whilst gardening. So I can really imagine just how helpful gardening can be for the group of people you describe. It really does 'level the field' and help people talk in a way that you wouldn't find elsewhere.

    Well said Sara. As a pacifist too, I think the government should be supporting veterans in this kind of way. Until then, it's wonderful there are people in the communities across the country supporting them in this way, and giving them the space to 'grow'.

  2. Hi Sara Great post - this is at the heart of what my husband's company does. He employs veterans to do leadership/development/CSR teambuilding programmes and most of whom have been through a rehab process. He centres CSR programmes partnering corporate companies with local charities to give back something tangible. Next month working to create a garden/playground for a children's hospice in Surrey.

  3. Hi Becky. That is brilliant. It's amazing what is going on out in the world that no one knows about and so important that we tell these stories I think. x