/ 14 October 2023

Gardens are fertile ground for good mental health

Wchildren Water The Garden At Home In Port Edward Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Photo by Delwyn Verasamy

Since its inception in 2015, the Spring Foundation at Lentegeur Hospital in Cape Town has been a “beacon of hope and transformation” in the realm of mental healthcare.

According to Dr John Parker, who was a psychiatric doctor at Lentegeur for over 20 years, the primary mission of the Spring Foundation is to develop a model for turning individuals’ lives around, transitioning from a state of distress to one of recovery.

“The idea behind the foundation was to facilitate various ideas around helping people get their lives back, become reintegrated into society,” he said. 

The name Lentegeur means the “aroma of spring” in Afrikaans — it was fitting that the foundation be called the Spring Foundation, as the season is ripe with the promise of rebirth.

One of its best-known initiatives is its Market Garden Project. A transformative programme, it consists of a two-hectare garden where individuals in recovery actively participate in cultivating crops.

The garden not only aims to be sustainable and cost-effective but also provides employment opportunities for patients.

“At any one time, 20 of the longer-term patients are working in the garden, earning a stipend, and they get financial literacy training, as some of them have been in hospital for over 10 years and have never seen a cent since then,” Parker said.

The benefits of the Market Garden Project go beyond the financial aspects. It allows patients to experience nature, work productively and regain a sense of purpose and personal growth. 

Parker admits that the project has not been running long enough to formally allow for research on its outcomes but there is a noticeably quicker discharge rate among patients who engage in the garden project. 

Dr Chris Ellis, a family physician at Hayfields Medical Clinic in Pietermaritzburg, said horticultural therapy is a formalised field that recognises the therapeutic benefits of gardening. 

“There’s three aspects to it. There’s the physical aspect and then there’s the mental aspect and the spiritual aspect of gardening therapy. So the physical part is that any exercise helps mental health and gardening is exercise.

“A lot of people think exercise has to be running marathons or going to the gym. In fact, gardening is exercise — it’s rather like swimming or yoga, because it exercises almost all parts of your body.

“And therefore we know that exercise helps mental health. So it’s really better than a sedentary lifestyle, where you sit there and press the remote on the TV,” he said.

Ellis said that gardening reduces stress and anxiety and improves one’s mood. 

“You get positive emotions from it. The plants aren’t going to answer back, plants don’t argue with you, the trees can’t ask you to work overtime to cover for your colleagues. You’ve been left alone in a peaceful garden, so it often relieves your stress.”

The “spiritual aspect” can involve certain plants, such the sacred basil plant in Indian culture, which is revered for its spiritual significance. The plant is considered an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi (Tulsi), the deity of prosperity, and connects individuals to their spiritual or cultural beliefs. 

In 2009, Ellis worked at Town Hill Psychiatric Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, where a sensory garden was designed and planted outside Peacehaven ward. 

The ward houses long-term female schizophrenic patients, those with bipolar disorder, and younger patients who are awaiting placement in the community. 

The garden, according to Ellis, enticed the patients to not only see the beauty of nature, but also to touch, smell and taste it. 

Bird- and butterfly-attracting plants were cultivated, which enhanced the experience of staff and patients when they were outdoors, allowing an outlet for stress. 

“One of the patients had Parkinson’s and was a bit wobbly on her feet. I asked, ‘Would you like to keep the bird bath full each day?’ She was delighted that she had a task to do each morning. It gave her a sense of satisfaction and gratification,” Ellis said.

Ellis said another patient regained her confidence by tending to a hanging bird feeder.  

“She got a sense of ownership,” he said. 

Mental health often takes a toll on an entire family, according to Ellis, and having to visit loved ones in an institution can add to the stress the family is already experiencing. 

The sensory garden has played a role in lessening the stress of family members, too, during the long walk to recovery, said Ellis.

Gardening offers individuals, particularly those dealing with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, a goal, a task and a focus. It provides a sense of accomplishment and purpose, which can be a significant part of the recovery process. 

“Gardening therapy extends far beyond the beauty of blossoming flowers and bountiful harvests. It touches on the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of well-being, offering a holistic approach to healing. 

“Whether you’re an avid gardener or just getting started, the therapeutic benefits of gardening are undeniable, reminding us that nature has a unique way of nurturing both the earth and our souls,” said Ellis.

Nominations for the Mail & Guardian’s Greening the Future awards are now open for individuals, groups, NGOs and companies, no matter how big or small. Nominate by clicking here or go to mg.co.za/gtf-awards-2023

• Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.