By Emma Martindale, May 2022
Note: A Spanish version of this blog is available here.
Let me introduce you to Emma Martindale, a horticultural therapy practitioner I met in Edinburgh in January 2022. Emma has a BSc in Ecology and a background working in a variety of community garden projects in Edinburgh. She later returned to study, completing a Masters in Social Work and then working in an adult learning disability team while continuing to maintain links with therapeutic gardening. After eight years in social work the pull of therapeutic gardening was strong, and she is now self-employed running Nature on the Mind (instagram.com/natureonthemind), which supports individuals and organizations to improve wellbeing through gardening and promotes time in nature. Emma also works for Trellis Scotland, the Scottish network for therapeutic gardening (trellisscotland.org.uk).
Daniela Silva-Rodriguez Bonazzi – editor
Holistic Approach for Serving Women Who Experienced Violence
Birkhill House is set on nine acres of beautiful land about 30 miles south of Edinburgh’s city centre. With a rich farming and equine history, the property is now a busy small-holding, whose residents include Huacaya alpacas, Castlemilk Moorit sheep, pygmy & Golden Guernsey goats, pedigree Ragdoll cats, a gaggle of small dogs, and many more. All of the animals are part of the holistic approach, providing opportunities for animal-assisted activities for groups and individuals. The focus at Birkhill (https://atbirkhillhouse.co.uk/) is on wellness and mindfulness – taking a moment to be compassionate and nurture the creative side in all of us.
The aim of this program is to establish a natural dye garden, growing plants that can be used to create dyes, as part of the treatment plan for the recovery, healing, and improvement of wellbeing, for women who have experienced gender-based violence. The horticultural therapy program will have a therapeutic and a vocational approach.
The garden will be grown on approximately one acre of land at Birkhill House and is funded by the Communities Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, with additional support from Trellis Scotland (trellisscotland.org.uk). I will offer therapeutic gardening sessions.
Each plant grown will have the potential for use as a natural dyeing agent, which can ultimately be used with homegrown natural sheep and alpaca fibre to create vibrant finished products, like yarns and felted pieces. Once the garden is established and producing the foliage, flowers, and roots necessary for the dye processes, the women attending the project will acquire dyeing skills from natural dye experts and fibre artisans.
The participants will have the opportunity to experience the process of growing dye plants, fibre processing, and a variety of artistic outputs. The skills gained will help to improve mental health by providing vital outdoor opportunities and creative experiences.
- empower participants
- recognize gardening as calming activity
- promote self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth
- restore sense of self
- improve attention span
- explore values
- set goals for the future
- promote social interaction
The well-known Harvard sociobiologist, Edward O Wilson (1984), theorizes that all humans have a natural affiliation with other living organisms and are drawn to nature. Others have taken this further to suggest that contact with nature has a positive effect on our well-being, and conversely, deprivation of time in natural surroundings can be linked to poor health (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989). Howard Frumkin’s (2001) paper, ‘Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment’ (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11275453/) cites studies showing a cross-cultural preference for wild landscapes, and stress reduction studies that suggest scenes of the countryside elicit relaxation responses while urban scenes do not.
Through taking part in the Dye Garden Programme, the women will spend time at Birkhill, which provides a secluded and peaceful spot with views across the hills, near mature trees, wildflowers, and native birds and wildlife. To add to this idyllic space, a bell tent with a fire pit is always available as a place to retreat, to relax, and take time out as needed. The spaces and the views provide an ideal environment for relaxation, reflection, and connection to nature and the benefits for health and wellbeing as mentioned above.
Gardening activities will include planting seeds, nurturing seedlings, planting outdoors and in the polytunnel, and creating paths and beds. All of these activities have been chosen because they have a purpose and produce metaphors that can be incorporated in the recovery process. Gardening requires physical and psychological work, producing a ‘flow state’, which makes it a powerful and flexible medium for improving health and quality of life.
Part 1: Planning, planting & establishment of a natural dye garden
This part of the program will run from April to August 2022 and includes:
- development of a garden plan,
- defining appropriate plants for the site and the dyeing programme.
Organic growing methods are being used as much as possible, and ‘No Dig’ has been the method of developing the garden so as not to disturb the soil structure and microorganisms in the soil. The design of the garden reflects a cottage-garden/wildlife garden style, with the aim for participants to be a part of this design process – making decisions about where to lay paths, and the shapes of beds. The garden has accessible winding woodchip paths, edged with large stones. The woodchip originates on-site and the stone edging is being collected from around Birkhill, to reduce the need to bring in new materials, and therefore create a garden that has a positive environmental impact. Each bed will display a different dye plant, so monitoring and care of the plants, and collection of its parts for the dyeing process, is straightforward and prevents the mixing of plants. We are also growing a small “home garden” to help the participants develop skills in growing their own food and flowers, and “normalize” the process.
Initial sessions included seed sowing, preparing beds and paths, laying down thick cardboard, putting woodchip mulch on the paths or filling the beds with soil mix. The seeds were sown in a polytunnel for quick germination. Participants were able to learn about thinning and transplanting seedlings to larger pots or beds. They came with a variety of levels of experience in gardening ranging from never having gardened to having significant gardening experience, and very quickly they began to learn from one another as well as from the program leaders.
Part 2: A series of classes in natural dyeing
This section of the program will run from September 2022 to September 2023. It will allow continued opportunities to garden, through caring for annual, perennial, and biannual plants, weeding, clearing annual beds, adding winter mulch, learning about the protection of the garden over winter, and then starting the growing season again in spring. Comparing the life cycles of plants with the life cycles of humans is a very therapeutic part of the process, as well as observing plants’ needs and comparing them with each participant’s needs.
Participants will learn about:
- dyeing properties of each plant, including distinguishing between leaves, flowers, and roots necessary for different dyes and dyeing procedures
- mordanting (“fixing”) fibres for the uptake of dye
- prepping the fibre for dyeing
- natural dyeing processes
- uses of dyed fibre to create finished pieces
The Future of the Natural Dye Garden
It is envisioned that the project will be a long-standing one, providing a weekly two-hour opportunity for women affected by gender-based violence. Participants will be able to dip in and out of the program depending on circumstance and inclination. Although it is early days for the project, the garden is already growing and we are now looking to the summer months: continuing to care for the dye plants and starting to trial the use of their dyes.
We are already seeing positive impacts for the participants with their feedback: feeling “relaxed” and feeling the “happy hormones” while gardening. Some are even starting to think about how they continue some of their newly acquired skills at home. We are excited for the future of the Natural Dye Garden at Birkhill House, and the opportunities it offers the women taking part in its development.
- Frumkin H. 2001, ‘Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment’ American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2001; 20(3):234–24
- Kaplan, R., Kaplan S., 1989, The experience of nature: A psychological perspective Cambridge University Press.
- Parr, H (2005) ‘Mental health and nature: gardening, recovery and social citizenship,’ in Gallis, C. (ed.) Forests, Trees and Human Health and Well-Being (Siokis, Thessaloniki), pp.30-50
- Parr, H (2007a) ‘Mental health, nature work and social inclusion,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25, pp.537-56