The Garden of Healing

garden of healing

The wind creates a symphony as it rushes through bamboo leaves, hugs a tamarind tree, and gently strokes a wind chime in my terrace garden. Bells jingle while a pair of chirping sparrows flies by and a brown warbler tweets tirelessly. The changing moods of sunlight and the alternating hues of the sky create a soothing yet energetic combination with the greens in the garden.

Growing an organic herb and vegetable garden has turned out to be much more than just growing food. It’s a space where we find tranquillity, hope, life and ideas. It takes us out of our busy life into the world where everything is greener. This feeling is so productively addictive and powerful that we wanted to share it with our adult learners at the Recovery House – a rehabilitation centre for people with psychological illnesses.

Greener pastures await those who enter the Recovery House’s mental health programme

Healing through horticulture

Four months back, Yasir Husain and I started conducting horticultural therapy sessions at the Recovery House. Our class had clients aged between 30 and 60, who suffered from various mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and dual diagnoses such as depression with substance abuse.

“Once the clients have been educated in the basics of horticulture and are shown a particular process in a garden, the session leaders encourage them to do it on their own, which builds their memory, attention and concentration,” explains Saba Rehmat, associate clinical psychologist at the Recovery House.

“The participants are treated in a friendly way – as adults who are intelligent,” says Yasir Husain, session co-leader. “The activity is designed so that participants are given space to respond from their own knowledge, their preferences, or by performing tasks.”

Garden meditation

Horticultural therapy began with an informal walking and tasting tour between rows of shiny eggplants, lush spinach, blooming gourds and scented herbs, at a serene organic farm outside the noisy city. The idea was to spark inspiration and trigger the imagination for one’s own garden design, while eating right from the vine encouraged them to grow their own mini farm.

Getting their hands dirty in the soil and compost was initially avoided by some clients, but soon, they were deep in the dirt without any inhibitions. They designed their own container garden by working in groups and learned to share tools, take turns patiently, and to share responsibility.

“Gardening has contributed to increasing certain skills, such as social and communication skills, specially pertaining to working in groups. It would definitely be the second most enjoyed and actively participated unit in our programme,” says Saba

Healing through scented plants

Aromatic herbs and fruits are so important for soothing senses and conveying a feeling. We kept this in mind while making a selection.

Sweet Basil: Helps in clearing mind, finding joy, letting go of fear, relieving fatigue when the mind is weak or indecisive. It is also restorative, fortifying, and a gentle anti depressive..

Lime and tangerines: The radiant fruits are known for uplifting, cheering and reviving. Helps to prevent emotional outbursts, assists in making decisions and brings clarity to a foggy or confused mind.

Black pepper: It is psychologically warming and sparks curiosity. It builds endurance and helps to reconnect with life. It helps you move on when you are stuck.

Cardamom: It strengthens those who feel held back with cares, worries and responsibilities. Lifts the spirit, inspires courage and fortitude.

Mint: It is bold, prompting clarity and alertness. It helps alleviate feelings of inferiority and insecurity.

Sowing and nurturing

In the beginning of May, clients planted bitter gourd, sponge gourd, hot peppers, guava, basil, oregano, mint, okra, limes and tangerines in their garden. Sowing seeds was very exciting for them. They developed skills like transplanting plants perfectly. One client, in particular, showed a strong feeling of nurturing for the garden. She also began to dress up for the gardening session which showed that she was really looking forward to it. Another started to compost on her own.

“It is remarkable to see the depth of involvement in gardening that the participants developed over time. Not only that so many of them with various forms of difficulties work together, but they work to learn skills and apply what they learned,” remarks Yasir.

When birds ate bitter gourd sprouts, they planted cucumbers in the same pots and learned to deal with failure and turn that into success.

“Interestingly, a client with dependent personality traits learnt trying out new things without the fear of failure or rejection, and we saw that this behaviour was transferred to his life goals!” notes Saba. “With continued psychotherapy and an additional safe place in the form of the Vegetable Gardening Unit, he began to try new things which initially had scared him. He began to take public transport independently to quote one example.”

From plant to plate

Growing their own food has also made them more interested in tasting new herbs and incorporating them into their regular meals. Now they collect mint leaves when the cook makes biryani or they pick sweet basil for their snacks. Cucumbers are hanging on the vines ready to be picked, gourds are blooming, eggplants are about to fruit and okra is ready to set flowers.

Zahra Ali runs a small organic farm and is the co-founder of Organic City, which promotes green living.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 3rd, 2014