Nature’s medicine: mental health and the garden
As the trickle of media reports on gardening at the start of the pandemic became a flood there was one recurring theme throughout - gardening is good for your emotional and physical health. But is this really true?
Testament to the healing powers of the garden is the way in which gardening is being adopted in a number of clinical care settings for patients.
One such facility is the garden at the day centre run by the child psychiatry service at CHL in Strassen.
Head of the multi-disciplinary service and one of the driving forces behind the project, Dr Jean-François Vervier, advises that the day centre welcomes young children from 5 to 11 years old with significant impairments in their development related to communication, relationships and thinking.
I caught up with key workers Serge Schmol and Rachel Tirbisch at the unit’s garden to find out more.
Schmol advises that many of their patients have "a poor relationship to reality, integration difficulties and learning disorders".
"The intensity of their disorders, the consequences on their development and the risk of social and educational exclusion justify intensive and multidisciplinary long-term care of between one to two years," he adds.
Offering care in this way allows the unit to provide tailor-made support to small groups of five children.
The unit aims to enable each child to express themselves in a variety of ways whilst providing the opportunity to get to "know themselves" through different mediums. Part of their approach includes giving the children access to a garden and the opportunity to do some gardening itself.
The Secret Garden
Finding a plot in the vicinity for gardening proved a challenge. The psychiatric day centre is located in a family sized house opposite the CHL hospital in Luxembourg.
With distinct family rooms, the space allows for separate activities to take place indoors. Yet, initially, there was no outdoor provision for the children.
Staff were aware, Schmol explains, that "children need space, areas where they can run, where they can make explorations - explorations they cannot do indoors." So the idea of a garden as an outdoor therapeutic space grew.
In their quest to find an outdoor area, Tirbisch explains that staff from the unit tentatively explored the surroundings at the Centre Hospitalier.
First they discovered a track that led to a small forest nearby. Lined with hedgerows, it was difficult to discover what was hiding behind them. Initially they noticed goats in the fields and stopped to talk to their owner who let the children feed them and then... they discovered the gardens.
"Bam!" says Schmol, "that was the start, the first piece of the domino that made us investigate the possibilities of having a garden of our own for the children."
The Therapeutic Garden
Each allotment garden is managed by the Gaart an Heem gardening organisation in Rollingergrund. Once the organisation began to enlarge the spaces on offer it was possible for the day centre team to procure a plot of their own.
Both Schmol’s and Tirbisch’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. They feel that gardening is a discipline that gives each child "the opportunity to live constructive and sometimes corrective emotional, psychic and relational experiences."
Having a plot to garden enables the children to gain a better grasp of time; orienting them within the seasons and giving them the opportunity to observe how fast or slow food is produced.
Gardening also provides a creative outlet. Children can produce colourful flowers, fresh food and even artworks within the garden space, like the sheep built from recycled bicycle tyres and the repurposed bottle top rabbit.
While most of the children are admitted for behavioural issues, eating disorders and problems related to food are often underlying factors.
"Having a garden allows us to go back to the roots of the food chain and to implicate the children in a process of tasting fruits and vegetables which they...have sown and seen growing," Schmol says. Being actively involved in growing their own food helps alter the children's mindset and their relationship to food in the process.
The unit’s project at the Gaart an Heem in Rollingergrund has enabled the team to invest and expand their existing programme of therapeutic and educational resources. In the garden, children can experience "the fruit of regular and consistent work based on effort, patience and perseverance that begins in the spring with planting and ends later in the year with harvests."
Gardening is a discipline that encompasses the main aspects of a school curriculum. The sciences can be observed in the life cycle of plants, mathematics through planting practices; art in the creative process of growing and literature from learning the names of the flora and fauna situated in a garden. Even the gym can be added to this list, as gardening is ultimately a physical pursuit.
Growing evidence in favour
Although there is mounting evidence that the act of gardening substantially contributes to our wellbeing, there is a lack of formal statistical assessments to confirm this.
On my visit to the centre I really wanted to uncover the tangible benefits, the hard evidence behind the act of gardening as a therapeutic aid. It is these statistics that both institutions and professionals generally require to validate and evaluate their methods. But, this is where I am left wanting, as it is notoriously difficult to measure and assess such qualitative experiences, particularly within a clinical setting.
"Through their commitments, their questions, their ideas for redeveloping the garden; we realise that the garden activity doesn’t leave (the children) indifferent," says Schmol.
Many children engage with the garden through their five senses - they listen to the birds, they touch the earth, they taste the fruits of their labour and see and smell the flowers. Little by little the children reclaim nature this way.
"The garden allows us to see children in another context," Schmol says, "where they are called upon to work, to persevere without being asked to be hyper creative as in more artistic workshops."
Although this is one project amongst many in the department, Tirbisch insists it is an important one for the unit to continue to invest in each year from March until harvests in October. Hopefully now that the therapeutic seed of gardening has been planted it will continue to thrive.
Want to know more?
https://gaartanheem.lu/ - The website of the Gaart an Heem in Luxembourg.
https://kannerklinik.chl.lu/fr/service/pedopsychiatrie-centre-jour - The CHL child psychaitry unit.
https://www.vdl.lu/en/visiting/leisure-and-nature-activities/gardening-city/leasing-a-garden-pl - Lease your own garden plot from the Cité Jardinère.
https://www.nulli-priesemut.com/buecher.html - Follow German cartoon characters Nulli and Priesemut on their adventures in nature.