On the Edge’: Gardens, design and narratives of wellbeing

7 April 2017
By Frederic Whyte

The one thing about gardening and garden design is that it seems to attract all manner of waifs and strays. I studied garden design in my thirties, after a career in academic research. I had reached one of those moments in life in which many things had ended at once. I needed an uncompromising and complete change. I chose garden design.

Funnily enough, I do believe that subliminal currents had drawn me towards it. Excavating my childhood during my own therapy, I remembered the times I had spent in the garden with my grandfather. Memories came back. Before his untimely death – when I was 8 –  I had spent many hours watching him mowing the lawn and tending to his borders. Following his death, I believe that I tried to sustain a link with him: my parents gave me free reign in our back garden. My nascent interest, and sentiments of wellbeing in a garden space were also encouraged by Sunday afternoons spent in my Uncle’s vegetable garden in the midst of the Suffolk countryside. 

My vision for the RHS Hampton Court flower show

Designing, planning and building a garden for an RHS show is a real commitment. The standard of work and finish required puts one to the test. Rightly so. In 2016, I must admit that I over-reached myself, having planned gardens at both RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court.  I relied too heavily upon the commitment of others, and was ultimately let down.  The experience was a deeply disturbing one which churned up many vulnerabilities.  However, thanks to my ongoing therapeutic journey, I was able to navigate this difficult time. I had intended to take a year off shows in 2017, but was approached by Charles Benton. His enthusiasm is contagious.

On the Edge is both a personal, and a universal ‘journey’. The garden attempts to represent the path from depression and self-doubt into a more positive space through the use of plants and landscaping materials. It is not a ‘conceptual’ garden, but what I would like to call a ‘narrative’ garden and, like all good stories, it is both deeply personal and universal.

I believe that we have all experienced mental health issues at some point in our lives, and that we have all, hopefully, found ways of coping with them. For me, this garden, while seeking to evoke the feelings of emptiness and despair that come with depression, quietly celebrates the determination of the human spirit, via whatever means, to move forwards, into the realm of acceptance.

Partnering with Centre for Mental Health

On the Edge was conceived before Charles and I, serendipitously, were introduced to Dame Sue Bailey, a trustee of Centre for Mental Health, via mutual friends. I was struck by Sue’s passion and enthusiasm. She introduced us to the Centre and I was immediately engaged by its mission. The work of Centre for Mental Health across the spectrum of mental health issues reminds us that there is a spectrum of mental health issues, and that these issues can be dealt with in a whole variety of ways. Research is essential to the more evident and easily accessible work of mainstream charities.

The effect of gardening on mental wellbeing

Gardens and gardening can help us deal with mental health issues in many ways.  As a result of abusive relationships both at home and in the workplace, I left London in 2014, hoping to rebuild my life. I returned to the county of my birth, Suffolk, where I bought a cottage with a dear and supportive friend. We have a small courtyard garden, and the quiet joy it has given me is beyond quantification. Whether planting, pruning, or simply sitting surrounded by nature, being in my garden has been pivotal to the healing process.

Gardens are places where man and nature engage in a creative process. Unlike those wide, open spaces – the oceans, deserts, mountain ranges etc – gardens are on a human scale and provide us with the opportunities to see, feel, hear, touch and taste, close up. Gardens can be functional spaces, where growing plants, edible and otherwise, can bring people together and create interactive spaces. Gardens can be creative spaces, in which the imagination can be exercised. They can also be restful spaces, in which the emotionally distressed can find calm and solace in colour, form, birdsong, or simply the primal cocoon of greenery. 

Learn more about the garden.

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