Jo Wright, Director and Lead Horticulturalist at Social Enterprise Organic Blooms (a Soil Association certified organic cut flower farm) is an expert in social and therapeutic horticulture of 25 years and a passionate advocate for the wellbeing benefits of organic growing.
Social and therapeutic horticulture draws on a scientific spectrum that takes in biology, chemistry and environmental psychology. In particular, it considers the biophilia hypothesis: that we are innately comfortable in natural settings because we are genetically programmed to associate green spaces with protection and the ability to find food, water and shelter.
Organic Blooms use social and therapeutic horticulture to support and train people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties who want to move on into employment or further training. Jo also runs workshops and courses on topics, such as, using horticulture as a therapeutic medium, practical organic horticulture, and polytunnel growing and propagation.
Having taken her first degree in horticulture at the start of the 1990s when the organic movement was still gathering momentum, Jo’s training included the full range of conventional horticulture practices. Alongside her developing interest and expertise in social and therapeutic horticulture, however, grew an awareness that the use of chemicals and other environmentally damaging practices could be detrimental not only to the environment, but to our own wellbeing.
“On the face of it, to grow plants is to take positive action,” Jo explains, “but interestingly it is the process of growing them, more than achieving perfect end produce, that benefits our wellbeing.”
Jo continues, “When our primary aim is to achieve large, blemish-free fruit, veg or flowers we are more likely to turn to horticultural chemicals – pesticides, weed killers and synthetic fertilisers – that cause damage to the soil, biodiversity and environment… Knowing that we are causing this damage in our quest to grow a particular variety – not to mention producing fruit, veg and flowers that may be coated in a toxic residue – can lead to feelings of guilt or remorse, which has a negative effect on our mental health,” explains Jo. “How can we feel good about gardening if we know that we are damaging nature?”
By contrast, using organic growing methods can have a profound impact on improving wellbeing.
Jo explains, “A healthier approach is to focus in on the entire process of growing. When we consider the relationship between plants and the soil and surrounding ecology, we develop much stronger connections to the land and the natural environment – connections that can have a profoundly beneficial effect on mental health. So the knowledge that we are growing plants that are suited to the soil conditions and local climate, that are beneficial to the species growing around them, that will benefit local plant, soil, insect, bird and small mammal biodiversity, makes us feel good. And knowing that we are growing using processes that complement natural systems can give us a sense of meaning and belonging, of being part of something.
“Fighting nature to grow a crop simply isn’t good for us, whereas growing in harmony with the natural system is positive for wellbeing.”
At Organic Blooms, trainees and staff work as a team to sow, pot on, plant out and nurture a patchwork of around 100 varieties of traditional, native and pollinator-friendly cutting flowers each year. Gardening in a group develops social connections and a supportive camaraderie. It is particularly important to people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, for whom social isolation is an all too common reality.
Beyond the psychological benefits of organic horticulture lies a growing body of evidence that interaction with healthy soil brings direct physical benefits. “Research indicates that contact with Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil microbe, stimulates serotonin production, making us feel happier and more relaxed,” says Jo.
“Ultimately, when we consider how trees, plants, fungi, bacteria and animals work together to support each other in incredibly complex and finely balanced systems, it makes instinctive sense that our wellbeing improves when we try to behave as part of that system. Conversely it makes sense that when we step outside of that system and behave in ways that throw it out of balance, our wellbeing declines. Practicing organic horticulture can play an important role in reconnecting us with those natural systems that are so beneficial for our wellbeing.”
Details of upcoming courses and workshops are available on the Organic Blooms website. Look out for details of a special Organic Blooms event for Garden Organic members in the spring issue of members’ magazine The Organic Way.