Allotmentherapy - The Wisdom of Plants

'Allotmentherapy' (not in the dictionary) ~ literally linking the joy of allotment gardens and the therapy achieved in working there with nature

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For all intents and purposes I am a failure. I don't work, I don't study anymore, I can barely go out the door alone and I can't think straight a lot of the time. I have chronic depression, an acute anxiety disorder and severe, crippling panic attacks. My days go by as a sort of blur; I wash, read, write my blog, do some housework if I can and basically sit with my dog in the living room, alone. I am lonely and contradictorily, I feel better when there's no one around. I take a good amount of prescription drugs which leave me very tired all the time and to me my future is seen through the cataracts of disillusionment and there is only a distant haze of pale light.


It all started back when I was 6, well that’s the first time I can remember trying to explain how ill I felt all the time but not with a sore tummy, it was in my head. Really it wasn’t until I was 19 at university that it all went pear shaped and I had the first of many nervous break downs that have continued regularly over the past 10 years.

I have gone through 2 psychiatrists, 1 psychotherapist, 1 round of CBT, occupational therapy, art therapy, and psychology oh, and a fling with hypnotherapy too! Nothing has ever really helped and any help I did receive was very short lived, often ending in me back at the same point as I started or indeed in a worse state. I have lost friends and family over the complex nature of my illness and needless to say, my self-esteem is far from normal.

On the other hand I have a husband, the absolute love of my life and someone who has saved that life a few times in the past and continues to keep me on this mortal coil with his never ending love and support. I was through this exceptional man that I came to allotmenteering. There is a painful duality to love; I feel he deserves much better than me and thus I think about suicide, but then adore him and don’t want to ever be without him.

My husband began a healthy interest in gardening when we moved into our house together six years ago. He wanted to make something of the house and gardens which were in a bit of a state to say the least. I had grown up with an intense dislike for all things gardening and on top of that I was very uncomfortable being outside; our gardens being over looked by many other houses. Growing up I had been forced into weeding and tidying up like most children and I hated it! It always seemed that my free time watching TV was when my parents thought it was prefect to get some work done. So I left Andrew to it, apart from all the destruction part which I loved, he made the garden what it is today.

Just over a year ago, in April 2008, I read that our local council was going to allocate some land for allotment gardens. There was a deadline for applications and the talk was they would go fast, I think there were only 36 available at the beginning. It was such a joyous moment running out and telling the Hubby about it and within a few days we were the proud owners of a half plot of land at Beltoy Road’s Eden Allotment Gardens. We were the first to dig a sod and like an eejit I was taking photos of ‘our grass’ and ‘our soil’, even ‘our weeds’.

Of course I wanted to help. I thought it would be good exercise and I love digging and making holes, making an ultimately constructive mess in fact pleases me. I had no idea what the allotment would end up meaning to me, to us both. It has quite literally saved my life.

Ecotherapy was something I had never heard of, but once we started digging beds on our plot we joined the BBC gardening forum and someone mentioned it in passing. She hoped that, knowing my situation, the project would have a positive effect on my health. I had heard years ago that gardening was good occupational therapy for people with learning difficulties and I in fact volunteered at an urban farm which had been set up for that reason. I also remember hearing something about Mr Monty Don feeling better about life in the depths of winter when he thought about his garden and planning a new season. But for me, no, growing stuff was just something I’d do because my hubby wanted to and was so enthusiastic about. Little did I know....

As a couple we didn’t really do much I guess, once we had the house sorted out; my acute anxiety puts things to one side a lot of the time and we haven’t socialised nearly as much as the average young couple over the past years. Our 20 somethings are on the way out at an alarming rate (Andrew is 30 this month and I too hit that milestone in August). We haven’t any children, nor thought thereof and though we have a dog, I feel that our life together needed something bigger to focus on ~ turns out the answer found us!

There are so many aspects to allotmenteering. Of course there is the growing of food and flowers but what about all the planning that goes into that? In some ways that can be the most exciting part ~ deciding out of all the 100s of varieties of vegetable and fruits which ones you are going to grow, what your soil will grow best and of course the allotmenter’s way – how you can get these things at the best price? Really, the allotment year brings hope to the dark days of winter, as all you can think about is ordering seeds and going round nurseries looking for bargains in the rain. It’s at these times I am glad that most nurseries in Northern Ireland have the tacky household shops and a cafe attached – I swear, in winter a coffee and big bun are the best things on this earth sometimes.

Then you get to become a (not necessarily very responsible) parent to hundreds of seedlings. They’re all over your house, on every window sill and in mini greenhouses in the garden. Okay, you may lose your dining room to the consistent need to be propagating but watching that dried up dead little bit of nothing slowly emerge as a tiny peck of green is a joyous occasion. It’s addictive and exciting and even in the midst of depression seeing new life and new hope is a strong antidote, even for a moment (and really, don’t we all live for the little moments?)

There’s something about seedlings, they want to grow and hence you see progress daily, on a particularly good day, sometimes it feels like every time you look at it, it’s gotten bigger. Plus, it isn’t a life and death situation, if it goes wrong you plant another seed and within days, hoorah! another new life. It’s even better when they get in the ground (you may need an Andrew type figure here, to work out the dynamics of crop placement and rotation etc) and they really thank you for that well prepared soil, rich in their favourite foods and with the full freedom to romp away. There’s even satisfaction to be found in locating ‘the enemies’ (slugs, snails, aphids etc) and engaging in battle to save your precious crops. I warn you, a severe, all encompassing hatred for other creatures eating your food stuffs will occur at this time. Embrace it ~ you’re an allotmenteer now, a mini farmer. It is your duty to protect and kill without guilt or fear of retribution (the only occasion were this is permissible, nay, encouraged!).

Now we reach the best part of the whole adventure – harvesting. Hopefully there will have been a fair amount of rain and beautiful long days of sunshine and your crops are heavy with produce. I remember visiting my grandfather as a young child and witnessing the harvest of potatoes for dinner. Oh, my goodness, I was amazed that these spuds were hiding there under the soil all that time and I didn’t know about it. I’ll tell you, it was like sharing a special magical secret with the man I thought the world revolved around, and my, those potatoes were wonderful. I think that short time in the garden with him that day is one of my happiest memories. (Already ecotherapy had played a role in my life).

Eating food you have grown yourself and which is actually picked ripe, not covered in pesticides and not jetlagged from a trip of thousands of miles wrapped in cellophane, is a whole new experience. Things you thought you knew the taste of suddenly change into something that is bursting with flavour, it is hard to believe you are eating the same vegetable. Oh, and fruit, especially soft fruits picked from the stem and popped straight in to your mouth with the heat of the sun still present, I can’t describe it; a tingle of joy right on the tongue.

And that’s not all, sharing your produce and hearing all the wonderful comments, the praise and the thanks is a medicine for the soul in itself. To give is better than to receive, they say, well I don’t know about that, but it is nice.

Then comes the composting of old plants and that delicious circle of life and death and life, what you lift becomes the very same food stuff that makes next year’s harvest taste so darn good. What is not to love about recycling and composting ~ it’s simple, doesn’t cost anything and yet the rewards are priceless; the only other thing in this world I can think of that is even like that is love and it’s full of pain and uncertainty!

It took a year for me to get the courage to plant seeds myself, look after them and plant them out. I thought I would be terrible at it and everything would die, I had no self-esteem what so ever (it’s still extremely poor) but I have noticed a little build up, miniscule maybe in the grand scale of things but, darn it, it’s there!

Of course everything is not made perfect by being on the allotment. I’ve been there many a time and thought of killing myself; I am not joking. I was once going to ram the garden shears in under my rib cage, I was talking nonsense and shaking uncontrollably; Andrew took me home. I was medicated and slept the majority of the day. You probably don't want to know that but I think it's important to tell you ~ ecotherapy is not a panacea. Sometimes it can make you feel worse, even on your usual tablets (if you are taking some) and even though you want to be there ~ this cancer of the soul is sometimes stronger. It rips away the only pleasures you have in life and turns them into spiteful enemies. I was scared of every other person down there, I didn't deserve to be there and I was an embarrassment to my husband.I was a mess. Luckily I didn't do anything stupid and was back the following day. I had a great day, the allotment helped immensely. I spoke to friends and I took photos, the sun was shining and there was barely a breeze. It was a joy to see growth all round me, to hear petrol mowers and kids laughing, feel the sun on my face and arms and smell the grass, the barbecues, and Maggie’s little warm body.

Hope: it's an intangible thing but the greatest ally when it visits, even for one sunny afternoon.

Yes, I said ‘I spoke to friends’, on an allotment site it is really rather hard not to have some! Everyone is there with the same goals in mind and we are all learning together. It’s hard not to want to show off when something is growing particularly well on your plot and no one else’s (for some odd reason that you have no clue about but take the praise for it anyway) or indeed to find out where so and so got their very nice and healthy fruit bushes from but “they weren’t dear at all”. There is a lot of support and encouragement to be found and everyone has that plonk-it-in-and-see-what-happens ethos, which can result in surprising rewards.

On the other hand you maybe don’t have an allotment or indeed want one, but your garden, your balcony or that sunny windowsill in your home could equally be a haven. The plants don’t require you to be social, they don’t need to be talked to and they don’t (usually) start conversations with you when you don’t feel like it. Always, understand ~ it is on your terms; some days I can’t get the basics done, I can’t find the strength to get washed and dressed and engage in the world, as much as that upsets me I have to deal with it and hope the next day is better. When those days do come around again, more likely than not the allotment (in my case) helps me to feel purposeful and connected to the world. Still, if fragile, I don’t talk to anyone if I don’t feel like it and have found music headphones and a quick smile does the job.

It stretches even further than that with friends found on the internet through gardening forums and other blogs. You become part of a large international community whilst still being able to sit with your hair all scruffy and the housework piled high around you. It truly can be a haven, a way to feel less lonely but without pressure to perform for anyone.

Lastly, the main joy I get from ecotherapy is an ability to express myself through my plots, my photography and my blog. I find that a lot easier than talking to someone and trying to explain my feelings. I can see the progress I’ve made right in front of me, that way; see just how far I’ve come. It’s rather like art therapy or creative writing, both therapies of which I am very happy to recommend. Plus I have a terrible stutter when I’m nervous but you wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t told you because here, writing, I can be me, unhindered, free.

I don’t know you, but I would imagine that there are plenty of times when you feel like a failure, like what you do isn’t good enough. We can’t all be brain surgeons or find the cure for cancer, there are only a very few people in the world who can. But we can all grow something from a seed, put it in the ground, make sure it gets water and sunlight and we can all grow. We can all tend to another life and by doing so, tend to our own.

So yes I don't work, study, have children or keep the best home; tidy and clean with dinner on the table every night for the hubby.I am disabled, both mentally and physically. It pains me immensely to write that, to even admit it to myself, never mind anyone else.But.I have abilities too. I love my husband more than words can say; I care greatly for my friends, family and fellow man. I am passionate, empathic, and sympathetic, keep trusted secrets and always try my best.These things have no economic value therefore I believe they are not taken seriously. I certainly forget to list them in any description of myself (which are totally negative). But, surely they have meaning and are worth something - right? Surely I then have worth too?

Mindfulness is something I am trying to practice and looking back on the past months, I have fragmented it into moments, not minutes and hours. It makes the time seem longer (the bad parts and the good) but the outcome of this ~ I have lived, I have grown. And I believe it was because I was in touch with nature, in touch with life itself.

Carrie Gault
June 2009

For further reading, quanitive and qualitive survey results I would recommend the Charity Mind found at http://www.mind.org.uk/index.htm

And also the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, found at http://www.fih.org.uk/healthy_living/keeping_active/ecotherapy.html
These are just to begin with; you may find more research is being done all the time on this subject. We have entered an age where we all recognise the need to slow down, to look after ourselves, our planet and each other. I hope that you will consider the wisdom of plants in touching our souls and teaching us to just try and live one day at a time. We all start as the same helpless seedling, have our peak and then fade away from this Earth; let your time here be productive, in whatever small way you can.
Special thanks to my Hubby, Andrew and my friends at the Grow Veg Forum http://www.growveg.info/index.php who gave me the encouragement and support to write this in the first place and who always take the good days and the bad with me.

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