Grow your greens for mental health

A FEW months after Caitriona Kelly’s father died, she got an overwhelming urge to grow tomatoes just as he had done. 

She remembered, in great detail, his instructions on how to care for them, feed them and prune them, and went out into the back garden and felt compelled to pull up the flagstones only to discover wonderful soil underneath.

She felt very close to her dad while growing her tomatoes and the experience set her on a journey to bring the benefits of growing to a much wider community.

We know that eating fresh organic produce is good for us. And at a time when there is increasing emphasis on the nutritional benefits of filling our plates with good-quality vegetables, it makes sense to grow them yourself.

But as well as the nutritional benefits, growing your own greens — indeed any kind of plants — is one of the best ways of nourishing not only body, but mind.

Caitriona Kelly was so impressed by her own experience that she trained as a horticultural therapist in Coventry University in England, so that she could show others how plants can be used to improve physical and mental health.

The benefits are enormous, she says, listing just some of them: “They include improved mental well-being, increased self-confidence and self-esteem, the opportunity to socialise, fostering critical thinking, learning and connecting with nature.”

There is increasing scientific evidence to prove the mental as well as the physical benefits of growing it for yourself. Researchers at Bristol University have even found that the act of pulling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty in the soil can help to boost mood.

In a 2007 study, they found that the friendly’ bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae, which is found in the soil, increases the body’s level of serotonin, the so-called happy chemical.

Caitriona Kelly has seen those benefits first-hand when working with a wide range of community groups, including Travellers, disabled adults, children and prisoners, to mention but a few.

The first, most tangible, benefit is the sense of hope and purpose that comes with planting your own seeds: “There is nothing more hopeful than the act of sowing a seed. It gives people a sense of hope and a sense of purpose.”

Growing plants can be particularly transformative for those suffering from anxiety and depression, she says, as it can get people to engage in a non-threatening and forgiving environment where they are allowed to make mistakes.

“When you are suffering from depression, time can take on a different hue and it is really restorative to have a purpose and a routine. You learn patience; you have to wait for the seed to do its own thing in its own time. The experience can be hugely cathartic,” she says.

There was a sense of catharsis too among the prisoners who took part in one of the social and therapeutic horticulture programmes that Caitriona now runs as part of her work with Grow It Yourself (GIY), the social enterprise that encourages people to grow their own food.

The 12-week programme gave prisoners the opportunity to voice a huge array of problems and to, quite literally, turn over a new leaf.

They reported a range of benefits that included, decreased stress levels, improved sleep, improved mood, a sense of achievement and pride, access to organically grown produce and planning for the future in terms of further study in horticulture.

Now, Grow It Yourself is running a series of courses nationwide for those working in mental health, addiction recovery, health and well-being. The courses are accredited by Thrive, a UK charity with decades of experience in the field.

“Using gardening and horticulture with children and young people has been shown to be an effective way of promoting mental well-being,” Caitriona says.

Growing is also cheap and accessible. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can grow in a window box or indoors and still reap the benefits — physical and mental.

In May and June, Caitriona will be running courses to introduce the concept of social and therapeutic horticulture. A one-day introductory course takes place in Brigit’s Garden in Co Galway on May 11 and a two-day course focused on mental health will take place at GROW HQ, the GIY headquarters in Waterford, on June 15-16. For more, see www.giy.ie

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