A therapist explains why gardening can be a tool for stronger mental health
"I’ve always wanted to make gardening a prescribed therapy."
Annabelle Padwick is a professional gardener and well-being therapist based in Oxfordshire in the south of England. She’s the founder of Life at No. 27, which aims to empower people through practical, outdoor, and creative activities, and an ambassador of Thrive, a national therapeutic horticulture charity.
Inverse recently spoke with Padwick about starting over, growing carrots, and why gardening should be prescribed as therapy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hi Annabelle! Can you please tell me a little about yourself?
I’m a gardening and well-being based therapist. My aim is always to support people who are struggling with mental health, and to get people into gardening that may not be originally open to gardening.
I went through a series of mental health problems myself, ranging from anxiety to panic attacks. I also experienced abuse, which led to paranoia. I came out of it on the other side, thanks to growing my own food.
Originally, I went to my doctor and they offered me tablets [pills]. In this country, it seems that that’s the option they offer you straight away because it’s easy. But that wasn’t the treatment that I wanted for myself, so I was offered the option of group cognitive-behavioral therapy. I tried three sessions and it also just wasn’t right for me.
So, I decided I wasn’t being offered the help that I needed, threw myself into the deep end, and came up with my own mechanism. Eventually, I decided to try to grow my own food. At the time, my thinking was that it could help save me a bit of money. I gave it a go, and just got hooked. It was what clicked in my head and actually made me believe in myself again.
Do you remember what was the first food that you grew that changed it all?
So I grew a carrot and I also grew a marrow, which is like a giant zucchini. I grew a massive one in a container, and I just found that really satisfying. And then potatoes — I love to grow potatoes.
How did this journey result in Life at No. 27?
I started a blog, writing about my own journey with gardening and how that helped me. It turned into a YouTube channel, and radio show, and lots of public speaking. Then I realized, “well, I’m doing a lot of talking about it, but there’s not much actual doing.” And I had something that could potentially help a lot of people who are trying to find help, and haven’t found it yet.
That’s when I decided to quit my old day job, gave up my house, and set up a social enterprise [nonprofit] that provides therapy for every age range. I wanted to provide therapy options that I didn’t have.
So now, Life at No. 27 provides gardening and other well-being activities for children and adults, whether they’re struggling with mental health, feel lonely, or have low confidence and just need a boost. It’s really early intervention with the hopes that they don’t go further down a darker path, and need more serious help. I want to be able to help people as early as possible.
"I want to be able to help people as early as possible.
My big goal is that I’ve always wanted to make gardening a prescribed therapy — so people could go to their doctor, and it’s an option they’re given alongside tablets or other therapy options. I want to make this happen in the United Kingdom, but if I could do it worldwide, then I would. I just want to give people another option that might help.
Why do you think working on a project, like starting a garden, can contribute to positive mental health?
I have two views on this. One is that working on a project as a group can help because it offers a support network, provides a safe environment, and individuals can feel like they are part of something larger. Something like a communal farm can help people learn new skills, like growing their own food, and then, in turn, it shows them that, if you look after something this is what happens. Then hopefully that encourages them to look after themselves a bit better.
The only downside to being a part of a larger project is that the sense of achievement one feels may be dimmed because they haven’t done it entirely themselves. That’s why some of what I do is group-based, and other times individual-based. I want people to get the greatest sense of pride that they can.
Your life was changed when you experienced the power of gardening. What does it feel like to watch other people share that experience?
I love it. It is a bit odd — this has been my goal, and now it’s happening. It’s an incredible feeling to be now in a position where I’m in and be able to design these programs and help other people. To help others, and see the differences made, makes me feel a huge sense of pride. It drives me to try to help more people, and make this an easily affordable and accessible option.
"It drives me to try to help more people.”
On the days where you’re feeling a little lower, do you still find yourself turning to gardening?
Yes, absolutely. I have to remind myself that when I have my own dips to go get outside and look after myself. I live on a boat now and I get out and look after my plants. It gives me time to switch off and relax myself.
It’s all about this process of growing an inconspicuous seed that looks like nothing into food that I can eat! It makes me think what else can I grow and do if I give myself or my personal goals, that currently look like nothing, the same care and love.
Are there certain plants that you’re growing now that you enjoy the most?
I love edible plants or the ones that have medicinal properties. So apart from vegetables, I love lavender and mint. Lavender is just so beautiful and has so many medicinal properties. Mint is very good for indigestion and things like that — and it just makes me smile whenever I smell it. I have so many mint plants, they just calm me.