Lucy Butler is a devoted gardener and student at the Royal Horticultural Society. Nature and gardening have played important roles in her life, and helped her mental health massively. Lucy, known as “mindful gardener” on Instagram, is determined to bring the concept of mindfulness into gardening and spread the benefits to wider population.
How long have you been a gardener? Please tell us more about how you started.
I am currently studying at The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to be a professional gardener.
Gardening has always been a part of my life. My mum is a very keen gardener, and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. Since my late teen, I have suffered on and off with depression, and I've found gardening and just being outside very helpful for my mental health. Watching birds, bees and other forms of wildlife in the garden, or looking at a beautiful flower and just focusing on the simple beauty of nature in all its forms can really help to break negative thought patterns. During heavy bouts of depression, it is easy to be overwhelmed with those sorts of thoughts which can lead you into a downward spiral where you are unable to process your thoughts and feelings, and in those moments, the act of trying to bring your mind into the present moment and take notice of your surroundings really breaks the monotony.
After I bought my first home with a garden, I started doing more gardening. One day, I was watching the Chelsea Flower Show, where they were talking about the lack of gardeners and specifically female gardeners in the industry. I suddenly felt that this was what I would like to do for a living, it was a real light bulb moment for me! At that time, I was working at a property company in Birmingham and my job was quite demanding, so I started studying with the RHS through distance learning in my spare time. It has been a long journey as I also had my daughter during this time so I've been juggling studying and life as a busy mum. The pandemic has certainly delayed my plans, but I am due to finish the final four theory exams this year.
How did you start mindful gardening?
I started thinking about how gardening has helped my own mental health and depression, and that I really wanted to do something in that area to help more people. There are social and therapeutic horticulture courses, which I want to take once I complete my studies with the RHS that will help me to facilitate this. In the future, I would like to host some mindful gardening workshops and share my own experiences with others.
Apart from gardening, do you have other professions?
Yes, I work part-time as a swimming instructor. I am also volunteering with the Gardens Team at a local National Trust property, Shugborough Estate, which is great for me to get more practical experience in horticulture.
For people with minimal gardening experience who are afraid of all the unexpected issues in gardening, do you have any advice?
No matter whether you're a beginner gardener or you've been gardening for years, there will always be successes and failures. I always say ultimately plants are in charge, not us! Sometimes you can do everything right but they will just do their own thing and that's ok. It could be easy to get disheartened. But just as there are failures, there are also plenty of successes - try to learn from both is what will give you the experience. Plants sometimes have a habit of surprising you. Don't be afraid to just give it a go.
Do you have a favourite part of gardening?
I enjoy all aspects of gardening, even weeding! The simple act of being outside and breathing in the fresh air while you work is such a joy. There are certain things I enjoy a little less so such as mowing lawns. But actually mowing lawns is a great mindful gardening exercise as the repetitive nature of this task really helps to calm busy minds.
Please tell us more about your mindful gardening experience.
There are so many aspects of mindfulness that you could bring to gardens. Not only the act of gardening itself, but also just simply being in gardens without doing anything except breathing in fresh air and immersing yourself in your surroundings or doing meditation in gardens is super beneficial.
I love doing what I call my daily garden wanders, which only takes about five minutes so is easy to fit into even the busiest days. I walk around the garden to see what's new, which plants are coming up and how plants are progressing. Tools are not essential for mindful gardening. It is about bringing your focus back to the present moment. There is a great mindful gardening exercise called the study of a flower. Simply choose a flower and really focus on that flower. Notice how it looks, how it smells, how it feels, taking slow deep breaths while you're doing so. If your mind begins to wander, gently bring focus back to the flower. This is a great way to relax your mind and calm your thoughts.
How did you strike a balance between work and life when the pandemic started?
It was certainly difficult going into the unknown when everything stopped. I tried to pay attention to my garden and made sure I immersed myself in nature as regular as I could, even if it was only through the daily walks which were allowed by the government in the early days. Luckily we had a warm April in 2020, so I was able to do lots more work in the garden. I set myself a little lockdown project to create a new flower border on a patch of disused lawn I have, with help from my husband. We also decided to start growing more edibles in containers, which was fun.
When you sow a seed, you want to be around to check on it, to watch it grow and nurture it, which distracts you from the outside world and gives you hope. As those seeds start to germinate, you sometimes can't believe that this beautiful plant has come from something so tiny. It gives you an enormous sense of achievement knowing that you've grown and nurtured it and I just love that feeling of excitement when your seeds start to germinate or your cuttings start to root - it never gets old!
Do you like trying to grow different plants or grow your favourites?
There are certain plants that I love and will always grow in my garden such as Lavender, Verbena bonariensis and Agapanthus. But I am also inspired by other gardeners’ instagram accounts which make me want to try new things too. As I've learned more about gardening my opinions on certain plants have also changed. For instance, I did not like annuals previously and much preferred to have perennials in my garden. My feeling was that it was too much effort constantly chopping and changing plants and I liked the ease and reliability of perennials that come back year on year, but last year after I planted some annuals because I needed a quick gap filler in my new border, I've grown to love their versatility and with such a wide range of beautiful annuals to choose from, I actually really like having the flexibility to change the colour scheme and style in my containers and borders and to grow something different every year.
*Annual: plants that germinate, flower, set seed, and die all in one season.
Perennial: cold-hardy plants that will return again in the spring.
Do you grow a lot of edibles?
I predominantly grow flowers and have previously only grown a few edibles. However during lockdown I expanded my range of edibles and enjoyed growing them so much that I have further expanded what I'm growing this year. Herbs are very easy to grow. Tomatoes and blueberries are relatively easy too so I always make sure they are on my 'to grow' list each year.
For people who would like to grow a plant but live in small flats in cities, what would you advise?
First of all, check the size of your balcony. You can grow most flowers in containers and also a lot of edibles too. If you do not have big area, growing vertically using climbing plants is a great way to save space.
Secondly, make the most of the space you have by getting window boxes or hanging planters.
If you want to grow edibles, herbs or microgreens are perfect for small spaces and can easily be grown on windowsills.
Would you encourage children to garden or generally be more outdoors?
Definitely! My husband likes gardening too, and we are both outdoorsy people. We have cultivated our daughter's love of the outdoors from a very young age. In our spare time, we love to go on family walks and go on nature treasure hunts. I also let my daughter help me in the garden. She enjoys watering the garden. We have sowed seeds and planted flowers and edibles together.
Growing plants can teach children so many things, such as patience, and how to cultivate and nurture things. It can help them to grow and develop as well as teach them valuable life skills such as responsibility, creativity, discovery and self confidence. Growing edibles, is particularly important to get children to understand where their food comes from.
This year, my daughter and I are planning to grow purple carrots together - which we're very excited about!
Apart from gardening, do you have other rituals?
I always try to fit some sort of exercise in to my daily routine. Prior to the pandemic, I use to swim a lot, and did some open water swimming. The experience of swimming in open water in a lake or in the sea is completely different from swimming in a pool and is such a joyful experience. I would love to get back to it once I have the opportunity.
I also really enjoy walking and find that it really helps to calm my mind.
What does serenity mean to you?
To have a peace of mind and time for contemplation.
Are you a serene person?
Right now, I am not as serene as I would like to be. That is why gardening means so much to me. I certainly want to be more serene.
Do you like drinking tea?
I like herbal tea, such as peppermint tea. I have grown several different varieties of mint which are very tasty and are great for making your own herbal tea.
Could you please give three pieces of advice to people who want to pursue serene living?
Firstly, hug a tree! I love trees and I think many people take trees for granted but the matter of fact is we simply wouldn't be here without trees. They give us life, they help us breath, they provide food, fuel and shelter. Just put your arms around a tree, you may feel silly at first, but the positive energy feeds back into you which is very grounding and such an amazing experience.
Secondly, spend time outdoors as often as you can. The benefit of being outdoors, breathing in lots of fresh air and immersing yourself in nature is immeasurable.
Lastly, meditate, especially outdoor meditation will do wonders for your physical and mental health.
Get more inspiration from Lucy.