Green fingers, healthy mind

Gardening for mental health is well and truly in vogue, with demand for allotments outstripping supply. While the rest of us play catch up, enlightened souls like Tom Gallagher have been quietly digging for victory for decades. Tom is the director of London’s Sydenham Garden, a thriving community garden in Lewisham, which helps people in recovery from mental and physical ill-health. 

Grass and Co visited Tom in situ to find out how this enormously successful outdoor wellbeing centre came about. 

Tom Gallagher (l), Director of Sydenham Garden with founder Jim Sikorski, Honorary President and Founder (r).  

How did the idea for Sydenham Gardens come about? 

It all began with Jim Sikorski who was the mental health lead at Sydenham Green’s GP practice. Jim became frustrated with what the practice was offering patients who were presenting with depression and anxiety.  

He consciously put his biomedical training to one side and rather than focusing on what was wrong with people and prescribing pills, he began asking them what they did with their time and what they hoped to achieve in the future. 

He found that the majority of those suffering from mental illness reported a lack of social activity and meaningful activity in their lives. Rather than sit on this insight, he formed a craft group in Sydenham Green garden. 

As more GPs came to hear about the group, more practices became involved and the increased numbers of volunteers meant that more meaningful work had to be found for them. 

“We need to move away from prescribing pills towards a more inclusive community lead approach to our nation’s mental health and wellbeing.”

What changes did Jim observe in those suffering from depression and anxiety?

The data that Jim gathered in 2011 showed that the gardening and associated ecotherapy (therapy administered by mental healthcare practitioners visiting the site) was highly beneficial for those with mild to moderate depression. 

We aren’t great at talking about our feelings, but when we dig a bed or plant seed-pots we forget our negative thoughts and enter a state of flow. This attentional focus lifts our mood and we begin to open up. 

What part do you feel that nature has to play in their recovery?

Watching people come alive in our garden is the most rewarding part of my job. Working with soil may seem dirty and smelly to a lot of people but the evidence shows that soil can have similar effects on our brains to antidepressants. 

The ‘good’ bacteria in soil activates neurons that promote the creation of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our mood. The more that people come into contact with the living soil the more positive effects they experience. 

What advice would you give our readers based on what you’ve learned?

Gardening gives us a sense of responsibility for the natural world and keeps us connected with living things.  A lot of the therapists who work in our green spaces cite loneliness as a growing problem in society, which I find strange when I’m surrounded by other people all sharing the same basic need to connect. 

Joining an allotment or working in a community garden is a great way to feel connected. When you have a shared goal like bringing in a harvest or raising funds your contribution is valuable.  It’s like being in a big family. The benefits are immediate.

What other benefits to mind, body and soul do we reap when we garden together?

Gardening forces us to think laterally and keep our senses alert to the subtle changes around us.  Our ‘Sow and Grow’ program provides sessions for people with mild cognitive impairment born of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We see improvement in attention, lowered stress levels and the reduction of pain. 

What does the future hold?

We’re a tiny community program but we present a useful case study and I think we need a paradigm shift in this country. We need to move away from prescribing pills and move towards a more inclusive community-lead approach to our nation’s mental health and wellbeing. 

Our gardens and green spaces hold the answer.  When we turn towards nature and focus on our healthy-functioning we return to ourselves and remember what it is to be alive.

Foot Note: 

Sydenham Garden was officially opened in April 2006 by T.V. gardener and writer, Gay Search restoring some original elements that date back as far as the 1800’s, when it was a rose nursery, now referred to as the Victorian Garden.

Used by the whole community, but particularly by those referred by local health professionals, who are coping with significant illness, the garden is used for horticultural, conservation, creative work, arts & crafts tasks and training.

After 5 years of fundraising Sydenham Garden finished building its Resource Centre in 2011, a beautiful, environmentally friendly building, that serves as an activity and administration base.

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