Every morning, Sarah wakes to a view of greenery: her three beloved houseplants and a windowsill of cacti. "The small movements of watering them and turning the pots so they get equal sunlight make me feel important to something, without the pressure of the outside world. It's like a hush falling over my overthinking mind."
Originally from Scotland, the 26-year-old describes her Camden room as her "mini green hideaway" and a small reflection of the lush landscapes that she misses from home. For Sarah, who says her troubles with sleeping, overthinking and anxiety reached new levels this year, the plants are a crucial means of managing her symptoms.
Nature, plants and gardening have long been lauded for their calming and soothing benefits. According to a 2017 report from Friends of the Earth Europe, access to nature offers multiple health benefits including increases in self-esteem and mental wellbeing, while gardening charity Thrive, which helps people with disabilities or ill health through garden therapy, counts "improved mental health from gaining a sense of purpose and achievement" as a key benefit of an active interest in gardening.
Both Professor Green, whose battles with depression and anxiety have been well documented, and gardening guru, Monty Don have spoken passionately about the benefits of gardens to our wellbeing. Speaking last month at the Chelsea Flower Show’s launch of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Feel Good Garden – a collaboration between the RHS and the NHS to promote the positives of gardening and green spaces for health and wellbeing – Professor Green talked enthusiastically about his garden: "I love my own garden and the more time people spend close to nature, away from phones and general pressure of life, the better we’ll all feel."
"When you take responsibility for something, it makes you feel more worthwhile, like you have a place," explains Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and Telegraph columnist. The "double dose" of endorphins from being outside and being active, relaxing scents from the garden and the physical manifestation of your labour are all reasons, according to Blair, why gardening and tending to plants can feel so enjoyable and beneficial to our mental wellbeing. "To choose a treatment, which has the minimum side-effects but is something you’re likely to keep up, is a wonderful prevention technique," she says.
Kirsty, 28, describes her allotment, where she grows a variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers, as her sanctuary. Having suffered a traumatic pregnancy and birth last year, Kirsty developed post-traumatic stress disorder. While looking for natural treatments, gardening kept cropping up as an option. In Lincoln, where Kirsty lives, the waiting list for allotments is short, and within three weeks of applying, she was on her plot. Being able to reap fresh, organic produce for her two young daughters also gives Kirsty a sense of achievement, and publishing updates on her blog has enabled her to share her experiences. "My allotment has had a huge effect on my wellbeing and mental health and I’m not sure where I would be without it," she admits.
While for many millennials, gardens and allotments can be out of reach (especially in cities like London, where waiting lists can stretch on for years), Blair is adamant that even a single houseplant can have a positive effect. "I’m so in favour of gardening, either indoors or outdoors. Even one house plant can make a difference," she stresses. "It’s a responsibility, a creation, an exercise and of course, best of all, it makes you mindful. It puts you in the present moment."
Natasha, 22, agrees that the sense of purpose and achievement gardening brings has helped her on her darkest days. "It was really satisfying to see something growing and improving even on the days when I was struggling to complete normal tasks myself, like showering or eating due to my anxiety and depression," she says. Natasha hadn’t thought much about the therapeutic possibilities of the plants she had been gifted when moving into a new apartment building in Victoria, Australia, but soon found tending to them gave her a sense of calm. She looked into growing herbs and now incorporates them into her cooking, while her growing collection of succulents and flowers now includes a peace lily and a large jade plant for good luck.
Liam, 32, turned to gardening after buying his first home last year, following years of trying to get on the property ladder. Going freelance as a graphic designer soon after, with the uncertainty that came with it, meant he was feeling a fair amount of daily anxiety which he says was often overwhelming. Working from home, he’s found the garden, with its hanging baskets of tomatoes and strawberries, to be a great outlet and says he finds himself dipping in and out of the garden throughout the day. "It creates a set of nice problems to solve," he explains.
It is this focus and concentration that Blair says is hugely important for our minds. "There are some downsides to technology and one of them, which I think is extremely uncomfortable, and which we’re becoming more aware of, is our inability to maintain focus with ease." She says the problem-solving and nurturing opportunities that come with looking after plants, whether it's a pot of kitchen herbs on your windowsill, a pretty succulent you picked up in your local garden centre, or a vegetable patch, can be as important for your mind as the act of being close to nature.
For Sarah, looking after her plants has offered another unexpected benefit, which can be a major breakthrough for anyone suffering with their mental health: starting a conversation. "My mum and gran are huge gardeners and being able to talk to them about how to care for something became a small way for me to be able to reach out for human chats without the pressure of talking about me."