Article in The Times – Sowing the seeds of a happier life

From Times Online

May 4, 2010

Why gardening can be the best form of therapy

When her mother developed Alzheimer’s, Catherine Horwood found solace in gardening. For centuries, women have done likewise

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Catherine Horwood

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Coming in from the garden, once again I’m heading for the medicine cabinet. This time it’s for disinfectant to help to work out a rose thorn splinter, yesterday it was thermal rub to ease back pain, and soon it’ll be antihistamines to stem the sneezes. “There you are,” says my totally non-green-fingered partner, “I told you gardening was dangerous.”

As someone who doesn’t know his agapanthus from his amaranthus, he would, wouldn’t he? But he also knows that if it weren’t for gardening, I might well have been down at the doctor’s surgery not for antibiotics but for antidepressants. For me and countless others, gardening can be the best form of therapy to get one through the toughest of times, an antidote to stress and depression.

In the late 19th century there was a philanthropic movement to distribute plants to the urban poor. Caring for these plants, even just one red geranium on a windowsill, could, it was suggested, lift the spirits and encourage the most depressed person to take a pride in his or her surroundings. We may scoff at such condescending assumptions today but few of us would deny the uplifting effect of a bunch of flowers. But gardening? Isn’t it too physical, too frustrating to have any form of calming influence?

Since the middle of the last century, it has been assumed that the person disappearing down to the allotment is more likely to be a man. But with allotment sites so highly prized and a new generation of family gardeners taking them over, the male domination of the garden has all but disappeared.

Across the centuries, when it comes to getting away from it all, it has been women who are more likely to turn to their gardens. It is where they can unwind in a space that brings them close to nature, puts distance between them and household chores, and gives them privacy and emotional respite. For some women, it is much more than that — it is a lifeline to sanity, as I have experienced myself.

As a child, I thought I hated gardening. My mother and my aunt were passionate gardeners and seemed to spend my childhood talking about the relative merits of this clematis or that rose. My cousin and I swore we were never going to be like that.

But of course, as soon as we had gardens of our own, we were. While I struggled to bring up my daughters (I had three under 3), my garden, a typical long, narrow London shape, was given over to sandpits and climbing frames. But then something strange happened. I began to take notice of the plants and tried to nurture them. As my daughters grew, so did my flower beds. I divided the garden into “rooms” and packed it with old roses and scented perennials. I devoured plant catalogues, visited gardens across the country, and even opened my own through the Yellow Book, so keen was I to share my new-found love.

Gardening remained a common thread between me and my mother for the next 20 years, and we shared thoughts and ideas about plants as much as we did about children and grandchildren. When she developed Alzheimer’s ten years ago, that thread was broken. One of the cruellest blows was to see her no longer care about her beloved, beautifully chaotic garden. We chose her room at the nursing home where she spent the last painful weeks of her life because of its view over the gardens, even though she was completely unaware of them. Probably just as well as they were far too manicured for her liking.

Hospital visits, dealing with carers and social services, all the draining aspects of looking after someone you love who is disintegrating in front of your eyes, left little time in my life for normality.

There was only one place that I found true escape — my garden. Here I could become absorbed, if only for a few minutes each day, tapping pots to see if they needed watering, checking on slug deaths, pinching off side shoots, potting on seedlings. The garden needed me, and I needed it. Somehow working there kept me in touch with the mother who had always been my closest gardening companion. I would sit on a bench and cry because, as anyone who has a close family member with Alzheimer’s will tell you, the feelings of bereavement start long before his or her death. Smelling a shared, favourite-scented rose would help to bring back memories of happier days.

I don’t know why this should surprise me. Gardening has always been a source of solace to women. In medieval times, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) was a sanctuary for women where they had freedom to read and talk privately as well as to maintain the plants and flowers.

The traumas of family life hit all levels of society. In the mid-17th century, Mary, later Duchess of Beaufort, having been widowed for the first time at a young age, sank into a deep depression. She had, a friend wrote, “gone almost into a mopishness with melancholy.” Until, that is, she started gardening. She spent the rest of her life building up a collection of thousands of exotic plants at her two homes of Badminton and Beaufort House, which were the envy of every horticulturalist in the country.

In the 18th century, Henrietta, Lady Luxborough, after a mild flirtation, lost access to her children and was banished to a dull country estate by her jealous husband. Cut off from family and friends, with the unbearable prospect of never seeing her children again, what did she do? She set about creating a garden, corresponding with botanists, and she probably invented the word “shrubbery”.

The writer Virginia Woolf, in the early 20th century, urged women to aspire to A Room of One’s Own. In reality few women have such a luxury. The kitchen may be associated with the homemaker but somehow, for many women, this doesn’t play quite as special a role as the garden.

For Juliet Meadows, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the greenhouse at the end of her garden that became a place of sanctuary as she struggled to survive a marriage dominated by a bullying husband. Now divorced, she remembers the relief of having somewhere to disappear to. “My husband was very jealous and didn’t like me doing things outside the home. But being in the garden was somehow OK. The real bonus was that he wasn’t interested in gardening at all so he just left me to it.

“I used to spend hours locked away potting up seedlings and propagating my pelargoniums — even squashing greenfly kept me sane. I could find an inner calmness in my greenhouse that was never present in my home. Although of course he could reach me when I was out there, he rarely did. Despite his possessiveness, he knew the garden was my world, something he was never part of.”

Mental stress is often a symptom of serious illness. Yet few doctors would recommend gardening as the best activity for a convalescent. Five years ago, Linda Rogers was admitted to hospital for major surgery. Her condition was life threatening and, after a long spell in hospital, she was warned that her recovery would be slow. Previously she had held a high-stress job but the illness and subsequent surgery left her shattered, with little hope of returning to a normal lifestyle for months.

“Released from hospital in springtime, I’d lost both the confidence and physical strength to venture out in public. So I turned to the garden — private, safe and a place in which to test my “powers”. There I could stagger about, without feebly hanging on to a lamppost, having run out of “oomph”.

“Once among the plants and trees, I’d forget how poorly I’d been. And ‘tooled up’ with secateurs, I felt useful. Heaving the vacuum cleaner around was off-limits but snipping this and that in the garden offered gentle aerobic exercise, fresh air, and provided a kind of natural physiotherapy.

“I replaced worrying about whether I was going to drop dead at any moment with things such as wondering how far the clematis would spread over the arch and was it too early to plant the tomatoes. Gardening, unlike other pursuits, goes at its own pace; it allowed me to do the same.”

Bunny Guinness, the Chelsea-gold-medal winner, is a great advocate of gardening as therapy. “Stresses and worries peel away as the body loosens up through physical activity. Breathing becomes deeper, the scents lift our moods, and we lose ourselves in the movements — sometimes gentle and slow, sometimes thoroughly sweat-inducing — that make up our gardening routines.

“I have seen gardeners who are depressed, recovering from illness or less mobile than they once were, gaining huge benefit from designing and cultivating their own landscapes. Gardening seems to engender a sense of accomplishment, which in turn boosts self-confidence and helps us to deal with other aspects of life.”

Guinness is encouraged by the results of horticultural therapy where gardening can be used as a way of regaining a sense of control over life, and beating depression. “Consider the sheer act of hope that is required to plan and plant a garden,” points out Marilyn Mountford, a horticultural therapist. “The style is not important, it is the personal pleasure that it creates. This sense of inner well-being influences our health and the way we perceive ourselves.”

The physical benefits of gardening are obvious: sensibly done, an hour’s digging can burn up 300 calories. And, of course, there’s fresh air and no gym fees. The mental benefits are harder to quantify but can add up to no counselling fees, no anti-depressants.The physical work of gardening can also release those precious endorphines, such as serotonin and dopamine, which give us that exercise high. There are few activities where one can lose oneself so completely — and end up finding oneself a happier, calmer person. If you’re stressed or depressed, get out in the garden. By caring for your plants, you’ll be caring for yourself.

Some names have been changed.

Catherine Horwood is the author of Gardening Women: Their Stories, from 1600 to the Present (Virago, £17.99).

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Teresa Stroud wrote:

Beautifully written, thank you Catherine. Your descriptions of the benefits of gardening make this non gardener seriously think about giving it a go!

May 4, 2010 8:43 PM BST on


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Yvonne Burgess wrote:

Yes, I would agree with Catherine 100%. Plants that are wanted respond to human thought and care and, likewise, plants “earth” our stress and restore our magnetic balance. I’m sure Rudolf Steiner has much to say on this.

May 4, 2010 6:12 AM BST on

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