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If you do just one thing today, get outside - you will feel better for it!

Getting out into green spaces and connecting with nature are proven to improve your health and wellbeing. Leigh Johnstone AKA ‘The Beardy Gardener’ explains how he rediscovered his passion for plants during lockdown and how his garden quite literally saved his life.

My anxiety often makes me feel like everything is on fast forward, it’s like I’ve drank ten cans of energy drink or downed twenty espressos. This means that I find it very hard to concentrate on anything at all, I am easily distracted at the best of times, but when my anxiety is high I often have to put myself to bed just to stop everything from rushing past me at lightning speed. I have often been consumed by these days when I had achieved nothing at all. I used to get extremely angry with myself for spending the whole day in bed. In fact, when I knew that my wife was due back home from work, I would drag myself downstairs and sit at my laptop just to make it appear like I had been working all day.

Roll onto the spring and summer of 2020 and COVID-19 was something brand new and extremely scary. I remember being totally consumed by the news, as life as we knew it was collapsing all around us. ‘I could die’, ‘my whole family could die’ would often rattle through my mind. It was a terrifying and confusing existence; wiping everything with antibac, doing online quizzes with family members you never knew you had, not hugging, not handshaking, not seeing ANYONE. I would often open the back door and stare outdoors for a bit, maybe I might venture out onto the patio, sweep a few leaves, look up at the sky but then come back in. It felt a bit pointless, a time wasting activity that was stopping me from getting on with being a responsible adult. Those days were tough, 2020 was officially the ‘worst year of my life’ as I wrote in my diary at the time. My grandma had died of the virus and my wedding had been cancelled twice. I was eating way too much fast food, I was going to bed late and waking up even later. I was working from home but found it hard to get up, no projects to deliver, no people to see. It was monotonous. I was spending all of my time sitting down and paying the price with my health. I was in a pretty bad way and I needed something to break the cycle. I had a garden, I just didn’t know how to use it yet.

Like most of the population at the time, I used to go on a daily walk as a way to get out of the house. These walks were vital to my mental health, grounding me, giving me a sense of purpose and reconnecting me with nature, which had been missing from my life for quite some time. I got into the habit of touching trees that I came across, feeling the different textures of the bark and focusing on the patterns that it made. I bought a pair of cheap binoculars and started recording the different birds that I could see. I even tried to learn various bird calls. I was finding that being outside allowed me to reset, it helped clear my head and made me feel better. This excitement stirred something in me and I vowed to tackle my garden at home.

I didn’t really know much about gardening back then. I had a bit of knowledge that I had picked up from grandparents but taking on my whole back garden was a bit of a step into the unknown. I started small, focusing on just one section and I started growing what I knew: veg. My grandma had taught me how to grow tomatoes, so in that first year I made a few raised beds out of some old bits of wood and grew a whole host of vegetables. I got things wrong but that was ok, that was the beauty of it. I used that knowledge and came back stronger the next year. For me, what makes gardening so beneficial to my mental health is that it encourages me to slow down, to look at the bigger picture, to connect with the seasons and to notice things more.

Fast forward to the present day and the garden is a vital part of my coping strategy for when things get really tough. I have learnt to accept that my mental health will go up and down in waves and that the garden is a place within which I can level out my mind again. Deadheading flowers, weeding, sowing seeds, sweeping leaves, turning the compost and filling up the bird feeders are all great mindful tasks that offer a moment to reset and recover.

I think many of us are put off by gardening. We think we need to know the Latin names of plants, we get confused by terms such as ‘perennial’ and ‘ericaceous’ and think we need a huge space. You don’t. You can grow herbs on window sills, fruit in pots on a patio, even veg in hanging baskets outside your front door. My advice would be to just get your hands dirty. Get them in the soil, pick up a packet of seeds, chuck them in some compost and see what happens. Just try it. You might find it helps you as well.

Blog written by Leigh Johnstone, The Beardy Gardener, an active mental health campaigner, using his past struggles and childhood trauma to advocate for the power of gardening to improve wellbeing. He does this through his popular Instagram page where he can often be found having a little boogie and his videos have been viewed over a million times. Leigh writes for various newspapers and magazines and is a contributor to several horticultural and wellbeing podcasts. He is frequently heard on the radio, being called upon to talk about a variety of gardening topics on stations including BBC Radio 5 Live and LBC.

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Leigh is also the Artistic Director of Basingstoke based Fluid Motion Theatre Company and the annual All in the Mind Festival in Glebe Gardens.

September 2022

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