How Gardening (and a Touch of Lipstick) Saved My Life

As soon as I have had my morning shower, I put red lipstick on. My red lipstick is a daily reminder to smile, even though now I don’t even need the reminder anymore as I smile spontaneously several times a day!

The early part of 2022 wasn’t kind to me, but then again I wasn’t kind to either myself nor the people around me, who were worried about my health.

Through months of support from several healthcare professionals and the constant encouragement from loved ones near and far, I managed to pull through and I’ve realised that the activity that kept me focused, grounded, balanced and that, ultimately, gave me back my health, was gardening.

At first I thought gardening was a self-indulgent, middle-class, first-world, privileged past-time, also considering that many people don’t have a garden or outside space (or own a house). I felt embarrassed and considered myself lazy for spending hours pulling weeds from my neglected garden, thinking that while I was doing that everybody else was going to work and there I was, spending idle hours in the garden instead of being a productive member of society.

However, when it comes to our health, being kind to ourselves and especially not judging ourselves have to be the main therapeutic approach of choice. Only then we can start our journey to full recovery, or at least that is my personal experience, as I appreciate that we all are on different journeys.

While I fully appreciate that red lipstick may not be the one-size-fits-all solution to our problems, we all have one thing we can rely on to cheer us up, we simply have to find it or remind ourselves of something that used to bring us happiness. Maybe it’s our favourite pair of socks or our favourite t-shirt, you name it.

So, I might be wearing scruffy clothes, gardening gloves and old trainers (or runners, as they call them in Ireland) as I am tending to my plants, but my red lipstick makes me look well put together and people notice that. In fact, people who walk past my garden and see me “in action”, maybe transplanting some seedlings, smile and greet me, whereas only a few months before they would just walk past.

We all have our own personal journeys and our individual experiences are too unique to be able to generalise, but what I would like to do here is to share what has worked for me to, quite literally, obliterate my anxiety as well as resolve some physical problems that almost sent me to an early grave.

Nature Is a Great Teacher

Please forgive me for using a cliché but my inner struggles coincided with winter and my recovery with spring, so over the course of a few months I witnessed trees, plants and flowers emerge from their hibernation and burst out at the seams screaming for joy, finally freeing themselves from the shackles of frost by pushing out new growth.

As I tended to my plants, I was slowly making progress both mentally and physically. I could feel my muscles getting stronger after weeks of not being able to leave a hospital bed.

Touching the soil is also therapeutic: according to studies, there are so many beneficial minerals and bacteria in the soil that are good for our health. In a podcast interview, gardening expert Charles Dowding (you can listen to his interview on the BBC Gardeners’ World podcast) mentioned studies about the relationship between healthy soil and healthy humans.

For example, a study by the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food found that bacteria in soil has an important role in plants’ own defences, basically making plants stronger and more resilient against diseases and even against the attack from pests, therefore reducing the need to use pesticides. This study in particular aimed at helping urban farmers grow produce such as tomatoes, which are notoriously prone to several ailments. The research found that microbes in the soil support the plants’ own immune system.

The online journal Microorganisms published a study in 2019 about the relationship between human gut flora and soil microorganisms, and the impact of intensive farming on our health. Modern lifestyle coupled with a poor diet that is not varied and does not have enough fibre has a detrimental effect on our gut bacteria (gut biome), which is like a microcosm of living organisms working together to keep our immune system in check. This is the opening statement from this study:

“Soil and the human gut contain approximately the same number of active microorganisms, while human gut microbiome diversity is only 10% that of soil biodiversity and has decreased dramatically with the modern lifestyle.”

The Washington Post also covered the topic of the relationship between healthy soil and human health, referring to the gut biome: a healthy soil is full of microorganisms that break down organic matter. The article features a picture of an experiment with cotton underwear: fertile soil is full of good bacteria that “eat away” at anything organic, in this case cotton briefs. Soil also hosts insects and fungi, which contribute to the process of “digesting” what is put over the soil, for example dried leaves from trees, as they consume cellulose to live, as well as sequester carbon from the atmosphere. While more research is still needed, a correlation seems to emerge between soil bacteria and gut bacteria, with studies pointing at the ability of the soil biome to communicate with the gut biome in humans and alter it in a beneficial way, even providing a welcome mood boost.

While I can personally vouch for the mood-boosting properties of gardening, I haven’t done enough research on the effect of gardening on my own gut biome. What I can say is that the day before writing this article, I was completely absorbed for hours putting together a mini wildlife pond upcycling a washing up bowl and filling it with water and plants to provide a safe environment for small insects and that, together with my red lipstick, made me smile from ear to ear.

I will be forever indebted to the people around me who helped in my darkest hours, so to repay this karmic debt I want to give back and be as helpful as possible to others.

For example, I am raising awareness and fundraising for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), the lifeboat rescue service for the UK and Ireland that saved many lives at sea, in rivers and lakes over the years. You can donate online here: RNLI fundraising page.

I also volunteer with New Horizon, an Irish charity helping Ukrainian refugees and other displaced people in Ireland, you can donate here: make a donation to New Horizon.