Most gardeners instinctively know the benefits of spending time outside growing things. The fresh air, exercise, natural beauty and sense of accomplishment they offer are all deeply satisfying to the human psyche. Gardens also provide wonderful opportunities to build connections between people. I probably have more conversations with my neighbours while tending the vegetable garden at the front of my house than at any other time and often strangers will stop to chat about what I’m growing. These qualities highlight how valuable gardening can be as a therapy and that’s exactly what one inspirational charity uses it for...
Thrive is a national organisation with gardens based in London and Reading in the UK. The official term for what they do is ‘horticultural therapy’ but they sum it up as ‘using gardening to change lives’ and changing lives is really what they achieve. Not a quick-fix miracle ‘cure’ but a therapeutic journey for people with physical, emotional or mental disability or illness. Whether it is rehabilitating a stroke victim, tutoring blind and partially-sighted gardeners or advising on wheelchair accessible gardens, they transform lives one small step at a time.
It’s not just people with the more obvious disabilities that benefit from the therapeutic qualities of gardening. Those suffering from depression or coping with the trauma of Alzheimer’s and dementia regularly find a new hope and purpose at Thrive’s garden projects. Experiencing the variety of the seasons and the miracle of new growth can help people rediscover meaning in their lives. Visiting Thrive’s projects helps bring about ‘positive reminiscence’, stimulating the mind and offering opportunities for re-connection with family and friends. From experiencing nature gardens to growing vegetables in their own raised bed, the people who come to Thrive always leave enriched. "Really, it’s the process of gardening that helps people" says chief executive Nicola Carruthers, "if you change one life you can affect their friends, their family, their carers."
Thrive highlight five common benefits through gardening:
- Physical health: As well as good exercise, growing your own food promotes nutritional health and well being – important components in recovery.
- Psychological health: A sense of purpose and achievement is vital to bring about renewed self-worth.
- Social benefits: Gardens are wonderful places to connect with people and Thrive projects are known for the positive community spirit they generate.
- Gaining skills and qualifications: Those who have difficulty progressing in traditional educational settings can gain practical skills and qualifications in horticulture.
- Access to the natural environment: The all-round benefits of the outdoors are opened up to people who would otherwise struggle to experience them.
Of course, there are many other projects around the country, often little known, which use gardening as therapy. What Thrive does is hold a central national database of these so that they can link people to projects near them. I particularly like the fact that they put a lot of work into providing resources for those other individuals and groups working in similar settings. Their Carry On Gardening website and information packs help those who can’t access the established groups. Together with their national advice line they are fully committed to the wider cause, not just their own projects.
Times journalist, Sally Brampton, says "When I’m gardening the only thing I think about is gardening and I think it’s what physiologists call ‘flow’ – that you become completely absorbed in something that you’re doing and it transcends everything, you just forget everything else." That sums up so much of the wonder of gardening as a therapy: not only does it help with physical rehabilitation but it brings about renewal of the mind – the ability to rise above circumstances and imagine a brighter future. And that, as any wise doctor will tell you, is the prerequisite for effective healing. It’s at the heart of why Thrive is a charity overflowing with stories of changed lives and new hope.
NB. Although Thrive is UK based, there are other organisations around the world promoting similar aims. For North American readers, the following are worth looking at: