I don't think it's a coincidence that, when I lost control of my life in a momentous way, I quickly found solace in nature. Up until five years ago, I’d never considered the therapeutic benefits of gardening. I used to brag about my consummate ability to kill any living thing I potted indoors. The less you plant, I joked, the better your success rate. Bearing this in mind, it was, perhaps, serendipitous that we acquired our first garden in tandem with the news that my husband was seriously unwell. Somewhere amongst the grape hyacinth, it restored me.
Craving shelter outdoors, I bought a pair of gloves and a trowel, and, with zero horticultural knowledge, I set to work in our diminutive north-facing plot. Surveying two large flowerbeds – and a honeysuckle climber I was determined to keep alive – I began pruning the wild roses and hydrangeas. I potted herbs, swept up autumn leaves and braved icy November Sundays to plant random pockets of daffodils and crocuses in time for spring. Did I have any idea what I was doing? Not exactly, but that wasn’t the point. When I closed the living room door, I felt in control of things – and that was significant. I could breathe deeply. I felt calm. And squelching in the flowerbeds, I forgot about everything else.
Mindfulness may be an overused term these days but, over the years, my amateur green fingers have consistently coaxed me back into the present. I'm not its only cheerleader. Some health experts are so convinced by its health benefits they’ve given it a name: “horticultural therapy”. Earlier this year, The King’s Fund (a health system think tank) even recommended that it should be prescribed on the NHS.
Embracing gardening might be a small physical act, but it can have far-reaching benefits – not only keeping you fit, increasing your vitamin D and improving your blood oxygenation, but reducing your anxiety and stress levels. And it works indoors, too. The flowerbeds may be inhospitably icy in January, but windowsills and ledges are the perfect platform for nurturing tomato plants and herbs. As for me, I’m a big fan of evergreen palms – and I’m hooked on growing elegant orchids around me. I love watching them bend and twist at whim.
Gardening helps many people get into a ‘flow’ state. ‘This means that you don't notice the time passing, aren't simultaneously thinking over other things – making plans or rehashing the past’
“This is exactly the right time to review the old year and preview the next,” Ark Redwood, author of The Art Of MIndful Gardening, tells me when I ask for his winter tips. I’m told that the month of January derives its name from the Roman god Janus, guardian of gateways, who oversaw beginnings and endings. “In the garden, this is a prime time to take a look at what worked and what didn’t in the past 12 months,” he explains, “and to plan ways to optimise our plots in the next.”
Inside or out, there is something restorative about burrowing your hands in the earth and watching shoots purposefully grow. According to Hilda Burke, an integrative psychotherapist, this is a common response. Gardening helps many people get into a “flow” state. “This means that you don't notice the time passing, aren't simultaneously thinking over other things – making plans or rehashing the past,” she explains. “As such, it helps people both to switch off to other stuff and switch on to the present moment – in other words, to be more mindful.”
It can also teach us a lot about ourselves. “How often do we feel bogged down with stuff we'd rather not get our hands dirty with?” Burke asks. “Gardening gets us acquainted with the circle of life – noticing that there is a time for growth, a time for ending and a time for new beginnings.”
Her words strike a chord. When I was lost in the fog of IVF last year, my mum told me about a rose bush she had rescued from her local garden centre. The plant was underdeveloped and, when she planted its tiny frame, the rose struggled to do what nature intended. In spite of the sun’s rays, leaves surrendered and fell. Its five buds remained tightly clenched. And yet, in the face of such stubbornness, mum remained defiantly hopeful. She replanted her waifish adoptee at the back of the garden and, before too long, something small yet miraculous happened: two white roses quietly unfurled. “The moral of the tale?” Mum concluded. “Never give up.”
If I’ve learnt one thing from my amateur gardening, it’s this: hope is a seed – and sometimes it confounds our weathered cynicism and deepest fears. Dig down into the motley earth, plant something and take a chance. Trust that it will seek the light, and watch as it strives to grow.
This morning, I swept up a carpet of January leaves, swaddled in scarves, and, as the cold air tap danced across my cheeks, something caught my eye. In August, I took a chance on a camellia shrub, rooting it in a shady corner of our garden. Today, I counted seven plump buds waiting patiently for more temperate times.
They’re holding on for the promise of spring. And, for what it’s worth, so am I.