Mufti Vol. 61 No. 2
Photography: The Royal Botanic Gardens and Joshua Weir

Gardens have long been a source of solace, particularly for people who have suffered trauma. Whether it’s sprouting seeds on your windowsill, tending to plants in your backyard, or perusing a public garden, there is something deeply satisfying about being connected to nature. Indeed, there is evidence that exposure to plants and nature has a positive impact on physical and mental health.

The ‘Grotto’ at the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens.
The ‘Grotto’ at the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens.

Spring presents an ideal opportunity to get out and feel the sun on your face, sow some seeds, or tend to your plants. Victoria is, after all, the garden state.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in the heart of Melbourne, surrounded by skyscrapers, homes, sports stadiums and art galleries, is the perfect place to get acquainted with an amazing array of plants from around the globe. It recently launched three wellness gardens, offering visitors a new restorative experience.

Designed by Landscape Architect Andrew Laidlaw, the Grotto Garden, Birds Nest and Moss Garden are a trio of tranquil spaces, providing an opportunity to pause, reflect and connect with nature.

Andrew said the wellbeing gardens feature an array of plant textures, the sound of running water and places to sit, often with a subtle spiritual symbol that acts as a wayfinder or reference point.

“These spaces have been designed deliberately to be intimate,” Andrew explains.

“They are small and closed in, so that you are drawn inward and then wrapped by very beautiful greenery.

The ‘Birds Nest’ at the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens.
The ‘Birds Nest’ at the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens.

“It is my hope that individuals, couples and small groups come into in these environments and immerse themselves in nature, sit quietly and listen to the sounds of birds, water and life.”

He said each garden was designed to evoke a sense of calmness and a feeling of connection.

"It would be nice if people could feel that the world is okay in a place like this."

Andrew Laidlaw

For those unable to access large green spaces during the global pandemic, gardening at home offers physical and mental health benefits. Veteran Joshua Weir has firsthand experience of the positive influence of gardening. The former Sergeant Medic’s deployments in Bougainville on a peacekeeping mission and later in Iraq took an immense toll on his mental and physical health. Later, he was medically discharged and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For veteran Joshua Weir, gardening is a lost art that encourages mindfulness and connection.
For veteran Joshua Weir, gardening is a lost art that encourages mindfulness and connection.

For years Joshua, who is a committee member of the Lenah Valley RSL in Tasmania, yo-yoed between medical treatment and destructive forms of self-medication. Now he has found a combination of coping mechanisms, including activities such as: riding a motorbike, martial arts and gardening.

“For a lot of ex-service men and women, who have had a lot of horrific stuff happen to them, they can get very low and nothing seems to go right for them,” Joshua said.

"There’s something great about growing a plant from seed, whether it lives or dies, you are in charge of it."

Joshua Weir

A garden could be created just about anywhere, he said.

“Even if you just have a planter box on the windowsill, or a pot plant in the corner and some soil and seeds, you can grow a plant. You look after it —even talk to it if you want— and if it dies, you can just start again.”

Research suggests gardening can be effective for improving mental health and wellbeing, including for people with mental health problems. Gardening increases physical activity and delivers a healthy dose of Vitamin D, while home grown produce increases fruit and vegetable intake. The social aspect of gardening, whether it’s in a community garden or taking part in working bees or vegetable swaps, also enhances wellbeing.

Veteran Joshua Weir, working in his home garden.
Veteran Joshua Weir, working in his home garden.

Joshua has experienced the social benefits of gardening. He was involved with a garden plot established by retired army Colonel Michael Romalis (OAM) for veterans and their families in Hobart, which promoted gardening as therapy. They planted seeds, tended to their plants and cultivated and cooked vegetables.

After a hiatus, Joshua has recently returned to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hobart as a volunteer.

"Gardening is an easy form of mindfulness and I think it’s a bit of a lost art in the younger generations, but it’s an important skill and it has really helped me."

Joshua Weir

Andrew Laidlaw, who is also the President of Global Gardens for Peace, has designed gardens for palliative care and psychiatric patients, some of whom are veterans.

He said people in vulnerable communities living in institutions were often surrounded by concrete and poorly loved gardens. Part of the solution was to create gardens rich in plants and biodiversity.

“It is more important the gardens are full of life, well maintained and loved. I hope that they give veterans perspective on what is good in the world and that they are part of nature and not separate from it.”