This month, we have been celebrating our community gardens, and the benefits of therapeutic greenspaces to our health and wellbeing #GreenHealth. This week’s guest blog is from Mairi, a volunteer at one of our community gardens…
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1998. Between that diagnosis and 2005, I had many short stays in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital with severe manias and devastating depressions. Out-patient Psychology and later support from occupational therapists helped me to find relative stability through teaching me how to monitor my mood and use what’s known as a ‘Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)’. From then until a few years ago my bipolar symptoms, though still surfacing from time-to-time, were more manageable as I was able to take action sooner. However, in 2016 I had a really bad stroke of luck…
Inflammation of the irises of both of my eyes preceded inflammatory disease of my kidneys. Together, these symptoms make a very rare syndrome called ‘TINU’ (from which I am thankfully currently in remission). Before my diagnosis, my doctors were worried that one of my mood-stabilising medications may have been responsible (it wasn’t) – I had to go without until the kidney biopsy results came back. Furthermore, the only treatment option for this syndrome was known to cause mania in people with a history of mood disorders.
My old symptoms of mania started to creep back in. Whilst my WRAP enabled me to keep on top of these, the depression and anxiety that followed were absolutely terrible – just as bad as the bad old days in the first years after diagnosis. I ended up under the care of the Intensive Home Treatment Team, and my new and ever so patient wife. It was before an appointment at the hospital, during a walk around the grounds, when I discovered the Growing Space. With some experience in gardening, including a qualification in horticulture, I instantly knew it would be the perfect place to recover my mental and physical wellbeing.
When I started at the garden I was a little over ambitious about how much I thought I would manage, however by cutting back to a more modest amount I was able to build up gradually. I have particularly enjoyed helping one of the long-time volunteers with the vegetable gardening and learning more about soil health and what kinds of soil amendments help different crops. Recently, under John’s guidance, we set up an adapted version of a hügelkultur; a technique that helps to improve soil fertility. This really caught my imagination as I have a keen interest in the soil food web and the preservation of soil health which is greatly at risk all around the world.
My biggest gardening interest however is gardening for wildlife. There are already some great wildlife garden features in the Community Garden such as the wildlife hedge planted with native species, and more recently a new bed planted with blue flowering plants that attracts lots of bees (bees are strongly attracted to blue – this bed is called ‘The Sea’ as it’s just outside the ‘Beach Hut!’). Working in consultation with Butterfly Conservation (where I also volunteer), I am really proud to be busy in the creation of a new ‘Butterfly Border’ – an idea I had whilst laid up with a hip injury and feeling a little sorry for myself.
The Butterfly Border will be a large raised bed near the entrance of the garden, so I hope it will generate lots of interest in butterflies and other pollinating insects. While butterflies benefit enormously from native wildflowers, this demonstration bed will be filled with nectar rich garden plants that people are more likely to want to include in their own gardens. We still have plenty of room in the garden for wildflowers, including caterpillar food plants, and will be actively encouraging them to become established in suitable areas. Wildflowers will be planted at the base of the wildlife hedge which we also hope visitors will find interesting to explore and to learn more about the relationships between pollinating insects and native plants.
Gardening, wildlife and especially butterflies have all played an extremely important role in my increased sense of wellbeing that I now enjoy. I hesitate to say recovery, as I don’t think I will ever be fully ‘recovered’ – rather, better able to cope with my own unique and ongoing mix of health challenges. Gardening and observing and photographing the natural world transports me out of myself for as long as I am caught up in the activity and then gently places me back in my world a little more able to face life’s challenges. Regularly meeting others who also value the natural world helps me to have at least a glimmer of hope for the future of our planet and by doing my little bit for conservation I can rest at night knowing I’ve tried my best in the circumstances life has thrown at me.
I think nature can play an extremely important role in nurturing a better sense of wellbeing in those of us who live through periods of mental ill health. Even if it’s only a momentary break by having your attention drawn outwards to the beauty of a bumblebee looking for pollen on some Cosmos or a peacock butterfly taking nectar from a Buddleia. Many of these little moments, however brief, can renew inner strength… little by little. That is why I seek them out, often, and why I want to share this passion with the Community Garden.