Garden Therapy

The last two months have been a whirlwind of activity and a rollercoaster of emotions, leaving me with less time than I’d like to be writing here. Now that Dan Cooper Garden is up and running, I am looking forward to establishing a routine, starting to post more often and keeping you suitably informed and entertained.

They say that what does not kill you makes you stronger. After the last six months, I have a greater sense of this phrase’s meaning. I have spent more time managing myself – my tiredness, my anxiety and my confidence – than I have needed to do since my teenage years. But the contrast between how self-aware I am now, and how acceptable it is to talk openly about one’s feelings, is a testament to how far we have come in recognising the importance of mental health. Whilst I occasionally think we might have gone a little too far with our collective openness, I soon correct myself: until talking about mental health is no longer a ‘thing’ then the job is not done.

Many of the side-effects of starting my own business were not ones I had anticipated. They took me by surprise and continue to do so. Having worked on the shop floor or in an office for most of my career, I have felt lonely working for months on end in my spare bedroom. I have not slept well. I have eaten erratically and drunk too much. I have woken up almost every morning worrying about whether or not my new venture will work out. I have read and noted endless motivational quotes that have helped at that moment but then disappeared into the ether – they provide the same unsustainable, hollow rush that fizzy drinks do. Fear not, I am firmly in control and not in need of sympathy, but I want to make the point that managing your mental health can be hard and needs constant attention. If caught unawares, a situation can quickly spiral out of control. I was not ready for everything the last six months would throw at me, let alone what lies ahead. So, this Mental Health Awareness Week, give more than a second thought to how you and those around you are feeling and coping – all may not be as it seems. By taking the initiative you could make a difference.

Fortunately, all of us here are garden lovers, plant fanciers or worshippers of the great outdoors. It’s easy to claim that it’s hard to be glum when you have a garden, but when you are feeling low and have high standards it can be horribly difficult to keep on top of everything. Time and tide wait for no man, but you are at liberty to cut yourself some slack in the garden, particularly at this busy time of year and especially if you can’t achieve everything you would like. There will be time to catch up when the mood takes you, or perhaps you have a friend who could help you make light work of a big or ugly job? It’s so important that we design and develop gardens in a way that we can enjoy them rather than find them a burden. Adapting our gardens to our circumstances can take time and thought, but it’s a necessity once the task of keeping one up becomes so overwhelming that it no longer brings joy.

The filigree foliage of this hardy geranium lends itself perfectly to quiet contemplation

I am certainly no mental health expert and I understand that my troubles are insignificant in the scheme of things. However, I offer up here some of the things that I find helpful when I feel a bit blue, overstimulated, frustrated, tired or unmotivated in the hopes that they may appeal to one of you. Despite being easy to do and nothing new, it’s surprising how much effort it can take to break away from what’s on your mind to focus on something that could help to restore a sense of calm and balance. Give these exercises a try and see how you get on.

Tune in to nature’s soundtrack – here in Broadstairs I am so accustomed to the raucous screams of the herring gulls that my brain has completely tuned them out. I am often amused when I’m on a phone call and someone comments on the racket going on in the background – suddenly I hear them again. I am not suggesting for a moment that you tune in to herring gulls, unless that floats your fishing boat, but I do find listening to the song of a blackbird at the end of the day incredibly soothing and beautiful. Pick a bird, tune in and be swept away on a little tidal wave of music just for a few moments and it may put things back in perspective for you.

Study a flower, leaf or insect – Ever since David Attenborough brought ‘Life on Earth’ to our screens in 1979, I have been fascinated by the intricacies of nature. I kept the book and the photography inside still staggers me. We are all so busy that we rarely stop to appreciate what’s right in front of our eyes. I am no exception. Create a moment to look at a flower or leaf in proper detail, just as a botanist might. Admire the subtle markings, veins and ribs. Observe the colour of pollen, shading of petals or how a leaf attaches to its stem. No plant has the same attributes and it’s both revealing and absorbing to spot the differences. If you can find an insect that you’re comfortable with, that will stay obediently still for long enough, then the same exercise can be equally as mesmerising. Avoid the temptation to take a photograph, as we’re all so inclined to do these days. Just look and carry the picture in your mind.

Turn your face to the sun – although this suggestion is so trite that I hesitate to mention it at all, it’s also incredibly effective. Some of us are more sensitive to the presence (or absence) of daylight or sunshine than others, but it is widely acknowledged that a few moments in the sun can be a tonic, especially if you spend most of your day inside. Warmth can be very soothing too, which is why my happy place is in a greenhouse, cosy and protected from the elements like the plants within.

Water, mow or sow – low complexity, repetitive tasks are fantastic for clearing the mind. And, if your mind is already clear, they can provide fertile ground for generating new plans and ideas. I am frequently asked how I manage with watering my garden and whether I have an irrigation system. My oft-incredulous answer is no …. why ever would I want to do that? Watering is my time for ‘seeing’ – an excuse to move slowly and steadily whilst contemplating what I am doing. It’s almost the only time in my day that I don’t have other things clamouring for my attention. Watering with a hose is especially calming unless the line develops a kink or gets caught around a post. I don’t mow because I have no lawn, but I imagine the steady rhythm of mowing or sowing a large space could equally permit you to zone out for a few precious moments.

Take a walk in big country – More often than not I can be found gardening at the weekend, working through a long list of small jobs that leave little time for relaxation. In an attempt not to get caught up in the minutiae of my own little world, I find it helps to get out, not just for a short walk but a proper ramble in part of the county with long, unspoiled views. There aren’t so many opportunities in Thanet itself, but elsewhere in Kent there are some spectacular tracts of countryside that really help me to put my worries in proportion. If our worlds become too small, our worries will only make them smaller. Stride out and see if nature’s majesty can help put things back into proportion.

Clearly, these are all suggestions for alleviating a light touch of the blues and nothing more. If different methods work for you, I’d love to hear about them. Importantly, if you’re really down in the dumps, or you know someone else who is, then seeking expert help is the best way forward. Here is a useful link to the Mental Health Foundation website which is packed with good, accessible information. TFG.

This is one of my favourite walks between Kingsdown and St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe in Kent. The view back towards Ramsgate never fails to lift my spirits.