Gardening and Recovery

Image shows a long strand of daisy-like flowers

By Mair Elliott

Often seen as an elderly person’s hobby, gardening and it’s benefits to health can often be overlooked. With benefits to physical health, mental health and emotional health, I truly believe we should be discussing its value in holistic care for those with chronic illness, mental illness and disability.

I am lucky to live in a rural area and have a sizeable garden. I never really thought about the actual maintenance of a garden during my childhood and teenage years, I just enjoyed its presence and the creepy crawlies that lived within it. It wasn’t until I was roughly 18 years old that I got involved with the garden. My parents had been bickering over what to do with it and quite frankly I was tired of listening to them argue over it, so I drew a plan on a scrap piece of paper and got to work. I started building paths, creating raised beds, planting wildflower patches, creating seating areas, building a fire pit, and so on. I suppose, on the whole, to begin with it was more landscaping than gardening as such, but it meant I developed a connection to the piece of land next the house. I also love a good challenge; building garden paths with my own hands with no experience or knowledge was an awesome problem-solving exercise. It was also an opportunity to be creative and spend time with my family as we all pitched in.

I really dug my claws into gardening when I was 21 and recovering from a severe episode of illness. I had been in hospital for several months, had lost a lot of weight, and was given a strict no-exercise rule from my dietitian. I am and have always been an active outdoors-y person, so it was a real struggle to not be ‘doing’ something. I started to search for activities I could do outside that didn’t exert too much physical energy but kept me busy enough so I wouldn’t go stir crazy. We had one unused raised bed in the garden; I claimed it as my own.

It has been a year and half since then and I can truly say that gardening has been a vital part of the recovery process for me. Recovery from mental illness is not a simple process. It can split into many forms; physical recovery, mental recovery, emotional recovery, spiritual recovery, and so on. It’s also completely individual to each person. For myself, I feel my condition is a chronic affair and so it’s a case of daily management, especially given I’m autistic; something which I will always be. I still consider myself to be in my own form of recovery, even if I will never be ‘cured’ in the full sense of the word.

Gardening has helped me in many ways, the simplest; it is a way for me to get out of the house even if just for 5 minutes. On the bad days it can be difficult to do anything, but some of the simpler gardening tasks don’t require a huge amount of physical, mental or emotional energy, such as weeding raised beds. Getting out of the house and getting my mind focussed on a task is vital to surviving the bad days. I also like to think that weeding can be seen as a metaphor for removing bad thoughts from my head. I often find that I can get some relief on the bad days even just spending a couple of minutes in the garden.

There is a creative and problem-solving element to gardening also, which I find helps me. The creativity in growing good looking raised beds and flowerpots can be a really engaging. You can take it to the extreme like the folks who participate in the Chelsea flower show, or you can go low key like myself and just experiment in the privacy of your own garden. The problem solving comes in when trying to figure out why certain plats won’t grow well. It may be a little frustrating sometimes, but I love a good problem to solve.

On a more spiritual level, the level that has been most important to me in recovery, its such a healing experience caring for little plants and watching them grow and flourish. Harvesting from the plants that I’ve been caring for all through the winter and spring really gives me a sense of connection to the plants themselves and the food that I eat. Part of my recovery was from an eating disorder and so I was deeply disconnected and mistrustful of food; growing my own really helped me reconnect and build a healthy relationship with food.

I’ve just come in, mud all over me, wild hair and I’m pretty sure I swallowed a fly, but I have a deep sense of hopefulness. This afternoon I’ve been doing one of my favourite gardening things; planting tulip and daffodil bulbs. Those bulbs will sit through the wind, rain, snow, frost, darkness and cold through wintertime. Yet still, come spring, they will flower beautifully and brightly. As cheesy as it may be, I use this as a metaphor for what I go through. The bulbs trust the process of transformation through hardship to flourishing, and I can learn from that. Often, I find it hard to see a future, my illness clouds my ability to have a sense of hope, but planting tulips and daffodils is my way of defiance. I’m giving myself the chance to see past the cold and dark into a brighter time.

I know gardening isn’t for everybody, but I still think it is an under-utilised tool. It is mainly third sector organisations, so charities, that facilitate gardening groups. In this age of over-medicalisation, it seems important to be bringing healthcare back to holistic and non-pharmaceutical strategies. I’m not saying meds aren’t important to some, but balance between the medical model and holistic care must be achieved if we want to support people going forward. ‘Eco-therapy’ is an example of this. In Japan they have ‘woodland bathing’, a therapy for stressed out businesspeople. This is not new or revolutionary, we know fresh air, daylight, exercise and being in nature helps people, so why not make the most of it?

This post was originally published on

Mair is an autism and mental health campaigner, public speaker, writer and consultant. She is autistic and has had complex mental illness since she was 14 years old.

Twitter: @mairelliott1

Instagram: @mairelliott

Facebook: Mair Elliott: Young Patient Activist

Published by florence neville (she/her)

PhD student

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