Ever since it occurred to me how much being in my garden brought me joy, I’ve been slightly obsessed with pursuing research on the links between gardening and wellbeing. As I was finishing my Ph.D., days on the computer were long. I sat mostly idle in quiet spaces, tapping away at my plastic keyboard as I felt the burn of the computer screen light shining back on my face often into the wee hours of the morning.
It felt as though my only release was to escape to my garden. I would do as little or as much as I wanted there. I would talk to myself about everything and nothing. I would let complex ideas float from my consciousness and more often than not, the answers would find me some time later when I was least expecting them.
Time in the garden would sometimes involve hard physical labour. The type that left you so tired by the end of the day you’d want to collapse into bed. But I yearned a different kind of tired to the intellectual exhaustion of finishing a dissertation, so welcomed the aches and pains. I would be at the mercy of the weather. The cold sharp winter winds or the stifling heat of the harsh summer were a welcome change from the temperature controlled sterility of the university library. Birds would sing, leaves would rustle and the sounds of bees buzzing would catch my attention and often my imagination. I’d intently examine a new flower bud or the development of new fruit I’ve never grown before, for no other reason or justification than I wanted to. I’d ask myself curious questions like “Why do plants have hair?” and delight in the sight of lady birds or dragonflies drawing my mind back into some of my favourite childhood storybooks. I’d plant flowers that indulged my secret love of romance and whimsy, otherwise suppressed in a world of order and modernity. And most importantly for me, I planted where and what I wanted, with no compromise or consultation with others – a stark comparison to the constant and necessary negotiation of work, family life, and doctoral supervision.
The Ph.D. is now completed, but the constant companionship and deep love for my garden endures. Determined to forge a research career in an area I’m truly passionate about, I now research the benefits of gardening for a person’s wellbeing and sense of connection and belonging. Harping back to my principal interests in ethics relating to children and people with disabilities, I’m particularly interested in not just why we garden for wellbeing, but HOW we do it.
When working with children especially, there’s a tendency for adults or carers to dictate how a task is to be done, both out of a desire to minimise risk or harm and to help ensure a “great result”. But as with learning, the joy of gardening is often in the unknown adventure it takes us on, and the liminal moments of discovery that happen along the way. And some of that requires mess, confusion, and failure. So although we may be tempted to look for bountiful harvests and an overflowing garden to gauge a garden’s successes, it is worth focusing on what was gained for the gardener throughout the process. To do so, however, we need to authentically support children’s active participation and social learning. We need to relinquish control and accept the messiness that is the discovery. And we need to shift our involvement from that of teacher or leader, to one that sees all participants interacting within a dynamic system of shared knowledge and power.
There are a number of ways we can do this:
Ask, do they want to garden? Because actually they might not, and that’s fine. There will no doubt be a myriad of other related activities they can contribute meaningfully in (building, documenting through photographs, cataloguing seeds, researching what to grow in the coming months).
Involve them in early planning stages – the sooner they are involved, the more likely they’ll engage and feel like it is their space to enjoy and care for.
Build on existing capacity as the starting point – find out what they already now and use it to identify leaders and strategize for gaps in knowledge.
Allow access, PLAY and exploration – you wouldn’t want to spend time in your garden if every second involved assigned tasks and structured jobs so don’t expect them to either. Play is important.
Be prepared to learn too – as adults, we like to think we know it all, but we really don’t.
Celebrate the little wins – you don’t need a punnet of strawberries to feel a sense of accomplishment that comes from growing your own – just one will do!
Enjoy – it’s hard to make a joyous space if there’s no joy present when it’s built.
*Dr Kate Neale is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University in Australia. She specialises in ethical methodologies of involving kids and people with disability meaningfully in therapeutic horticulture programs and research. She has written a number of therapeutic gardening programs, runs workshops on therapeutic gardening for kids and people with disabilities, and researches in the field. She’s happiest in gumboots.
“I started growing food out of curiosity. I liked the idea of having lettuce and herbs and tomatoes on hand for meals and so started with half a dozen pots on my balcony. As the balcony began to fill and fill with pots, my husband suggested I put a garden bed in our backyard, and so I did. As our eldest daughter became more curious and we enjoyed spending time together in the garden we extended the 2 square meter patch to 6 square meter and then slowly the gardening bug took hold.
Our time in the garden also inspired me to do a PhD exploring children’s relationship with ethical consumption which I finished in 2015. During that time we decided to establish a properly designed garden with a “She Shed” so I could have a little oasis to enjoy and escape the computer. I have 21 square meter of dedicated vegetable patches, all inspired by the opportunity to spend time in my garden with my daughters. I often catch myself just watching them as they explore or play or munch on whatever is on offer. It sounds excessively sentimental, but it’s those moments I try hardest to hold onto and remember.
We live in a sub-tropical growing zone with mild winters and I can keep my garden actively producing all year around, although we’ve had such a hot and dry summer, I’ve really had to choose carefully what I grow. The perks of growing your own in terms of freshness, satisfaction and an ability to grow things not always available in stores can’t be beat. I also love to grow things I’ve never grown before purely out of curiosity and being in my garden brings me peace in an otherwise busy life. I’m always advocating for the benefits time spent gardening can bring to individuals and communities and in doing so, often reflect upon how much it has also helped me.
I’m currently working as a researcher in therapeutic horticulture, disability studies and childhood studies and love that my work ties into my love of gardening! I recently had the honor of presenting to Singapore National Parks on how to maximize the benefits of gardening for kids and people with disability and managed to pick up an Australian Institute of Horticulture award for my work in the field.
I’m constantly inspired by seeing people who normally may not get the opportunity to actively participate in gardening, get to do so and be proud of what they’ve achieved. I want people to feel empowered through their time in greenspaces and gardening. I want them to realize their potential and thrive through the opportunity of growing their own food.
My goal will always be to be gardening as much as possible and generally have my feet in gumboots and hands in the soil as often as possible. My garden is now three years old and I’ve enjoyed watching it settle into its landscape. The shed has greyed from the weather and the garden has developed little paths for exploring that await adventure within its nooks and crannies. I love watching it constantly change and grow. But there’s a big stretch of lawn next to my existing vegetable patch and I’m always eyeing it off for further garden expansions. If I could dream big it would be to fill the space with more beds and grow food to donate to foodbanks or local community kitchens, even have an open invitation for local schools and disability services to come and enjoy the space too. But while I’m working full time with a young family, that’s way too ambitious. It is maybe a 10 year goal. Okay maybe 15?”