Lettuces in garden being watered
Gardening can be a great way to be outside and active while maintaining social distancing. (Source: Markus Spiske)

Mental Health Awareness week couldn’t have fallen at a better time – in the spring of lockdown, amidst swathes of worrying news and the angst of separation, the topic of how to keep one’s spirits up has never been more pertinent.

Over the past eight weeks, as the days have become longer and brighter, gardens and allotments have become a refuge for many, highlighting an often overlooked privilege that many live without. While the panic buying mayhem of March was dominated by stories of toilet roll hoarding and empty supermarket shelves, suppliers of gardening equipment and seeds saw a boom in sales. Two months on, we are firmly rooted in growing season, and anyone with a seedling of interest in gardening, from experienced allotment-eers to novice gardeners, will be starting to see their outdoor spaces blossom.

There have been numerous studies into the positive effects of gardening and green spaces on mental health, with results suggesting that gardening can improve mental acuity, lead to feelings of achievement, and reduce stress. It also works as daily physical exercise, a way to develop new skills and, when the yield is edible, a healthy diet.

Lady in allotment with mug
Alison Farr uses her allotment as a space to relax as well as work.

In the village of Edingley, north Nottinghamshire, Alison Farr, 58, has been visiting her allotment every day. “It’s keeping me sane,” she explains. “It’s like a holiday, particularly at the moment – a holiday in the next village.”

Alison and her partner have rented their open-plan space since January 2019 and she says it’s the best decision she’s ever made. “It’s cheap, because we have seed and plant swaps. I make things and reuse stuff so I’m learning new skills. I’m also getting exercise, fresh air, a bit of a tan, and it all tastes great as well.”

With a bumper crop of fruit and vegetables last year, Alison turned to making veg boxes for friends and selling off the remaining produce at the charity shop she volunteers in. (“My Dutch teacher eventually said, ‘Alison please, I actually don’t ever want to see another courgette again.’”) She has also seen a number of new faces in the allotment in the weeks since lockdown, with empty plots filling up.

“There are a couple of new ladies in their early 30s who have three children. They’ve been going every single day since lockdown and all I hear is laughter. The kids are outside planting things, it’s amazing. You tend to think it is just old guys but there are a lot of women and younger people now.”

The stereotype of the gardener, reinforced by years of plaid-wearing Alan Titchmarsh-types is indeed beginning to wane. Instagram worthy houseplants have become a trend with millennials, and last year The Guardian reported that 43% of gardeners under 40 in the UK grow vegetables, suggesting that the younger generation are finding value in growing their own.

For Amanda Mitchell, 31, lockdown has given her the time to transform her back garden into a place to plant, relax, and carry on her training as a circus performer whilst out of work.

“Not having a job, I’ve had to do this massively on the cheap. Luckily my dad is a welder, so he made me a basic aerial rig so I can train. I made the vegetable beds out of the wood of an old sofa, which we filled with soil from a friend’s garden. I scavenged some free pallets and made some garden seating which I’ve painted up. It feels good to have made things out of nothing and be creative.”

Girl in a garden collage
Amanda Mitchell has created her first vegetable patch from free materials.

For those in the performance industry, the pandemic has led to a particular uncertainty as to when shows can begin again. Her second season with a travelling circus has been cancelled, and the back-up of hospitality work not possible, so gardening has been a source of focus and motivation.

“it was a reason to get out of bed because I knew if I didn’t look after my seedlings they would die.”

Describing herself as a dabbler in gardening, it was only since lockdown that she has been able to immerse herself in the task. “I started growing vegetables in March and it has had massively positive side effects mentally.

“Especially at the start, it was a reason to get up because I knew if I didn’t look after my seedlings they would die. It’s really helped me focus on something that wasn’t just, ‘Oh no, the world is over.’”

Rolling up the sleeves and setting out to improving a garden, yard or allotment can be a daunting task, and all the more so if lockdown has you feeling unmotivated, but it appears that the benefits are worth it. “Start small and just keep at it,” Alison advises. “This place was absolutely dire when we took it on, and it was hard work, but it’s truly wonderful at the same time.”

Top tips for starting your own miniature garden

With the Chelsea Flower Show happening online this weekend, there will be plenty of ways to get inspired to spruce up your own space. If you have a small space or a low budget, follow our tips for getting started:

1. Scavenge.
You can begin a garden without having a huge budget if you’ve got a good eye for reusing and repurposing. Yoghurt pots, milk cartons, and tetrapaks can be used to plant seedlings, while tyres, drawers and even old boots can be made into planters. Check out your local freecycle and see if there are seed-swap groups in your local area.
2. Grow herbs in your kitchen
A lot of common herbs find the UK temperature a little brisk in the winter and will likely die outdoors. Attach planters to a wall in your kitchen so they keep nice and toasty whilst in easy reach.
3. Find a gardening buddy
It is likely you will need someone to talk endlessly with about whatever you have planted, whether it’s to exclaim the joy of a minuscule shoot appearing or how best to harvest your courgettes. Find a gardening buddy who is interested, rather than afflicting your friends and family with endless gardening talk.
4. Plant straight from vegetables
If you’ve found a variety of shop-bought vegetable that you really enjoy, you might be able to grow straight from the vegetable itself. Tomatoes, potatoes, onions and garlic are just a few vegetables that can (with some careful Googling) be reproduced at home.