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Garden Therapy Being Tested As a Viable Treatment For Depression

Your doctor has told you, as if you didn't know, that you're suffering from depression, a condition that can turn everything black. So how do you get out of it before it turns into a serious downward spiral? Is there any alternative to a handful of pills?

Well, you might try growing sweet peas up a wigwam of canes.

Art therapy, music therapy and exercise therapy have been around for a long time, but garden therapy is a newer idea — though every retired person with time on their hands who heads out to a bed of roses after breakfast is probably practising it.

If you're suffering from empty nest syndrome, the children having fled home, then nothing fills it quicker than an overflowing flowerbed.

Now the NHS is backing a trial scheme at Mayfield Garden Nursery in Southampton, where people feeling as if the sun's gone in go looking for brightness in the garden.

Over an eight-week course, the students at Mayfield help to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers.

They even get lessons about plant types and how to control common pests — useful in the wider world.

That charismatic gardening presenter Monty Don, who himself fought against depression, once had the same idea: 'The first thing I do is get outside. It doesn't matter what the weather or time of year it is, it is essential to go out of doors.'

The British have been passionate gardeners since Elizabethan times, when houses were built instead of castles and travellers brought back new plants, such as roses and tulips, from explorations abroad.

Just at the moment there seems an explosion of interest. Every town has a thriving gardening centre.

At village fetes and festivals all over the  country, flower stalls are the  biggest attraction of all.

No surprise that Lily has shot into the most popular girls' names.

Perhaps it's also no coincidence that it comes when depression has been acknowledged as a serious national problem. We dug for victory in World War II and now we're digging for sanity.

The worst of depression is the terrible sense of powerlessness and lack of hope. But even a complete novice can learn how to plant and tend a sunflower or a pot of herbs — then watch with delight and quiet pride as they flourish.

I enjoy the tranquillity of gardening. I do a lot of stopping to listen to the birds and identify them inaccurately, but it's  even more fun when Tim, my once-a-fortnight gardener, is there to help.

Heads in the earth, we rage against the entire slug race or sing the praises of the white poppy with orange frilly edges, or the Parisian scent of the new red/black rose.

Tim identifies the birds correctly, though this year I heard the cuckoo first.

Dedicated runners will say that after half an hour's exercise their whole mood changes. Something chemical, I understand. Quite true, I'm sure. But what do  they have to show for it, apart from pulled muscles and  strained tendons?

Gardeners are not only taking exercise, but creating at the same time. Admittedly, half an hour won't get you very far — at least not in my garden, where the ground elder hasn't realised it's a weed — but two hours in a garden and you'll have all kinds of exciting results.

Last week, I took time off to admire my huge pink peonies with a white trim — they've been in the border for decades, but I uncovered them only recently.

How could any exercise freaks find the same satisfaction, particularly if they're stumping along in a gym?

Happiness is something you find along the way in life, I've always been told.

If so, gardeners really do seem to have the secret. Just think of those smiling faces, male and female, with friendly, unkempt hair and enough flesh to keep out the winter cold.

About half a century ago, my husband's first job was as producer of the radio show, Gardeners' Question Time.

Knowing nothing about the subject, he edited it for laughs which, he assured me, was easy since all the contributors were not only experts, but bursting with good humour.

I'm addicted to plant catalogues — which I take to bed with me the way keen chefs do with their cookery books. In  fact, I seldom order from catalogues because an outing to the local garden centre is such a treat.

The mere sight of a row of stripy tulips, purple pansies or nodding multi-coloured aquilegia is enough to send me to sleep smiling.

Who would spend money on a dress when you can buy 12 penstemon Juicy Grape, six exotic fuchsia, six rainbow trailing geranium, six highly scented antirrhinum, a winter flowering honeysuckle or Chinese witch hazel and one clematis montana Elizabeth for the same price?

The most surprising gardens I've ever seen — leaving aside the great Chelsea Flower show — are behind prison walls.

There, the therapeutic benefits of tending growing things has long been recognised.

Nelson Mandela kept a small garden that brought him great joy during his decades of incarceration on Robben Island.

In his autobiography he wrote: 'A garden is one of the few things in prison that one could control,' adding: 'Being a custodian of this patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.'

In Britain, there are even awards for good prison gardens. Last year, the prestigious Windlesham Gardening Trophy was won by a closed women's prison in Derbyshire called Foston Hall — beating 29 other entries from prisons around the country.

At Foston Hall, vegetables are an important part of  the mix — but there is also a flower garden where blooms are grown for the chapel.

The beneficial, nurturing effects of gardening were highlighted by the governor of Foston Hall, Greg Riley-Smith.

'The improved prison grounds have coincided with a marked drop in violence and incidents  of self-harm,' he said of  their triumph.

It is not even that you need a big space to garden. Window boxes and Grobags make it perfectly possibly to get that earthy feel and nurture something from a seedling to a brilliantly yellow sunflower or a plant laden with red tomatoes. Sometimes it works with pots and tubs inside a room, too.

Out in the garden, men tend to be up on the ladder with hedge clippers or whizzing about with the lawnmower while the women kneel in the mud.

Not being a therapist, I can't say if mechanised gardening has the same therapeutic effect — but I suppose it's all contributing to a beautiful garden.

And that's what it's all about: creating a place of beauty. So there we are, back to Adam and Eve in the garden, finding joy and satisfaction in the flowers and fruits of the earth.

And with any luck, there will  be no snake to spoil things — maybe, at worst, just the odd slug.

By Rachel Billington


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