6 Ways Gardening Strengthened My Recovery
Gardening became not only a form of therapy at home, but also a way of life. Before I was seventeen, I considered gardening to be a hobby for my mum and gran, something along the lines of knitting and jam making (oh, I do all of those now…). I had no idea just how relaxing, exciting, stimulating, and just how proud it could make me feel.
I started gardening when my anorexia got worse while I was doing my A-levels. I did not really want to get better. ED had too tight of a grip on me; it was my life, my identity - who would I be without it? I was resistant for many years, even after the positive changes gardening therapy did for me. To tell the truth, I had to go past rock bottom before I finally snapped and told myself enough was enough, I was going to change.
Change would have been impossible if it was not for my garden. It had taught me before over the previous years how to prepare myself for this uphill battle. It offered me a place of refuge. It offered me the prize of taking care of it again once I was well enough. Would it not be lovely to be able to eat the food I have grown without feeling the shame ripping me apart? I thought.
I went into the hospital early last year and reached a healthy weight after, honestly, practically knocking on death’s door. Being in the hospital, surrounded by other people who were struggling, I realized just how significant a tool gardening was for life, especially for those battling mental health, and especially for eating disorder patients. It is something overlooked and I discuss it in detail in A Growing Mind: the small book of gardening for eating disorders. Below I will outline how it could help us to start eating again, rebuilding our relationships with food, and how it has helped me to get my life back together.
1. Growing your own food encourages you to start eating again
When my mum first suggested that I grew my own vegetables, I was terrified. I knew that if I grew them, I would be expected to eat them and I did not want to. I almost gave up on the whole idea, but I did not know how to say no without upsetting her. I’m glad I did not.
The first things we grew were runner-beans and potatoes. These are now two of my favorite must-grow-every-year crops. There was a phase when potatoes were one of those famous ‘fear foods’ that I avoided. But watching them grow into plants, feeding, watering and nurturing them before digging them up with your own hands, you see that they are nothing to be scared of, at all. Potatoes are one of my favorite foods now. I eat them almost daily, at least weekly. There is something about seeing the vegetables or fruit grow from tiny seeds or plug-plants into these glorious, colorful works of nature that decreases all of that fear and apprehension about eating them.
2. Growing your own food inspires you to cook
As my interest in growing my own food increased, so did my interest in cooking. By the end of my first season of working in the kitchen garden, I was not only cooking my own vegetables, but also making my own bread, jam and desserts. These were all huge steps for me. Making my own bread had a similar benefit as growing my own vegetables - I saw what went into it and felt proud enough to eat it. Sure, I was still racked with guilt and could only bring myself to eat it at certain times of the day, but it was a step to eating bread again. Same with jam and desserts. I have a real sweet tooth which makes me feel so guilty, but I am not ashamed of it anymore, I accept it. I make all our jams from our own homegrown fruit and relatives and friends ask me to make jams and jellies for Christmas or when they are out. Most ED patients need to feel like they need a purpose, reasons to exist. It may sound silly, but doing little things like that for other people give us that needed sense of purpose. But back to jam: I remember watching other people eating toast and raspberry jam and thinking to myself ‘Yum’ but at the same time ‘No way’. But one day I did it, and despite the guilt and torment in my head at the time, years on, I currently eat my toast and jam every morning after my cereal, and it is okay.
Cooking your own homegrown things is like the second half of growing your own food. It is part of this special process that we are losing as humans. In the old days, everyone grew their own food and cooked their own food. Now I know many who buy their ready cooked potatoes from the shops, who do not know what to do with a beetroot and who say they are going to bake brownies when it means buying a packet of brownie mix, adding an egg and voila, done! No wonder we all have a confused relationship with food if we are changing so radically from our past. I believe it's time that people take a step back and rediscover the basics, for complete enjoyment.
3. Growing your own food helps you to become more adventurous with trying new foods
I am one fussy eater. Vegetarian fussy eater. Growing my own vegetables made me willing to eventually try growing and eating other fruit and veg, leading onto trying other dishes and foods. Five years on from when I first started gardening, I now like the following that I could not stand: beetroot, cabbage, brussel sprouts, damsons, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sweet potato, kale, pak choi, spinach, rocket, watercress, chickpeas, celeriac, fennel, courgette/ zucchini, butternut squash, pumpkin, broad beans… there is bound to be more, and all of this can be grown in your own garden or even in pots on your balcony or windowsill. Growing my own food, trying new vegetables I had grown, prepared me for my hospital stay as I was used to trying new foods by that point. Eating disorders narrow down your options for food considerably. Your head makes you cut out things you do like and bans you from trying new things, restricting your intake to a limited few items of foods. The more variety of anything you can eat, the easier it is to quiet the ED voices and thoughts.
4. Growing your own food encourages you not to waste food
I am very ashamed of this part. Just over a year ago I seized any opportunity I could to dispose of my food, to pretend I had eaten it. The day my mum caught me hiding avocado in tissue paper in my pocket was one of the worst moments of my life. I would feel awful about food waste while I was doing it. It felt so wrong, but it felt even worse to eat it. I was too scared. Recovery is removing that fear to eat from me and growing my own food helps, again. Growing your own fruit and veg will encourage you to appreciate food more, rebuilding that complicated relationship that was once damaged.
5. Gardening reduces stress and anxiety
Leaving the fruit and vegetable growing alone for a moment, I would like to quickly mention how all gardening is wonderful for the mind as well as the physical feeding of the body. Many people I have met with ED have struggled with stress, anxiety and depression. These are three things that I still have to work on daily myself. They go hand in hand with ED and fuel it. Gardening was used centuries ago for mental health improvement. For anyone who has tried mindfulness of hypnotherapy, gardening is a little like that. You get a moment of peace to yourself, a complete distraction from everything else going on in your life. A garden can be like a little bubble. You are secluded from the outside world and all problems beyond the garden vanish.
6. Gardening encourages you to reach out to others and interact with the world
Another key feature of ED can be retreating from society, isolation. Gardening is something that can slowly bring you back to the world you have cut yourself off from. I have awful social anxiety that was worsened by my ED. I have always found it impossible to talk to anyone, to approach anyone. I am overwhelmed by the thought of standing in a queue to order a cup of tea from a cafe.
As I said earlier, when you grow your own, you often have too much of certain produce. You will be surprised by how many friends or neighbors will be ecstatic at the idea of taking the unwanted load off your hands. It builds friendships, strengthens relationships through acts of kindness and generosity. By sharing (not giving it all away or hoarding it, the two extremes of eating disorder behavior), you feel balanced and helpful to other people, therefore better about yourself.
Isobel Murphy is a writer currently studying English Literature at Royal Holloway University of London. Her experiences with her own eating disorder and recovery have encouraged her to share her ideas to help others. She is the author of two self-help books, A Growing Mind: the small book of gardening for eating disorders (2017) and Finding Rays of Sunshine: Hope you feel better (2018). She is one of the founders for the mental health gardening charity, space2grow, located in Farnham, England.