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.