“The thing about growing plants at this time of year is that the whole process – from the planting out, to enjoying them flowering – makes you feel so much better,” says Monty Don on this week’s episode of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World (episode 10).
“I’ve written at great length about how gardening has helped me through depression,” he says, “simply through the process of looking after plants.”
This excellent program visits Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham. The oldest psychiatric hospital in the world, people with mental illness have found respite at the hospital since as early as 1247.
In a modern medical context, Bethlem’s ‘gardening therapy’ is considered innovative, but the physical and mental health benefits that come of engaging with natural environments aren’t groundbreaking news.
When the NHS was created in 1948, the UK was ripe with hospital farms, sanatorium gardens, and more than 16,000 hectares of land dedicated to recovery and respite – treatments of a kind that have been prescribed by health practitioners since the thirteenth century.
It was only from the 1950s, during a popularisation of pharmaceutical interventions for mental health, that the UK fell out of step with Europe and let its fervour for health-by-horticulture thin out.
Happily, a regrowth of ‘green care’ projects in the 1980s has seen the number of horticultural and agricultural projects available for people with support needs in the UK shoot up from 45 to more than 900, and the services that exist today are drawing on sophisticated research, consolidation of knowledge, and cross-pollination across health, care, and social sectors.
SweetTree Farming For All benefits from a wide range of ongoing research into the health benefits of farming and gardening, and works with support workers, health professionals, and the neurology specialists of partner SweetTree Home Care Services to tailor its programs to participant needs.
“Whether you call it horticultural therapy, ecotherapy, nature therapy, or one of many other labels,” says SweetTree Farming For All founder Jude Allen, “being outdoors – planting, harvesting, having practical connections with nature and animals through a farming or gardening experience – is simply therapeutic by nature.”