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Gardening Heroes: Kirsty Ward

22nd January 2020

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For our recent Gardening for Wellbeing Special, we chatted with Lincolnshire allotmenteer Kirsty Ward, better known (by her large online following) as My Little Allotment, about the way she’s using her beautiful growing space as her very own outdoors therapy.

“I fell pregnant with my second daughter in January 2016. From the start to the end I had difficulties. I went into premature labour, had a really traumatic birth, and it was a horrible time. Once we were home safe, I was coping well, and I was just incredibly happy for the pregnancy and birth to be over and so I got on as a mum with a toddler and a baby. “One morning in March 2017, my husband was on his way to go to Russia to work for four weeks. We got up, made breakfast for me and the girls, and during breakfast, I left the table and went upstairs. His taxi was waiting for him so he came to say goodbye and I was on the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. I was just really inconsolable and I didn’t make a lot of sense when I was talking, but the one thing I kept saying was that I thought I was going to die, he was going to die, the kids were going to die if he went away.

“He decided not to leave and we sought medical advice. Initially the doctor thought I was suffering from post-natal depression, I started taking tablets and went on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I was so poorly, with suicidal thoughts, panic attacks constantly, night terrors, insomnia, physical pain, sweating, and actually I got CBT privately about nine days after my breakdown. I found out that when something bad had happened during my pregnancy, he was away on a job. So him going away for the first time acted as a trigger for all the trauma in my head and I had a full on breakdown.

“I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is very different from post-natal depression, because obviously I’d had no problem bonding with my daughter, I didn’t have any trouble being a mum, and my partner leaving to go away was a trauma trigger, and my brain couldn’t cope. I was really poorly for two to three weeks, bed-bound, but luckily with the CBT, the tablets, I got back on my feet.

“One of the first things I did was to bake some cakes with my eldest daughter. It was only a twenty-minute task, but I managed to do it. I just felt like I’d lost my identity, like I wasn’t a person. I was Jason’s wife and the kids’ mum, and I felt like I was defined by a mental health breakdown; but I wasn’t me, I wasn’t a person and I didn’t have anything that I wanted to do.

“I decided to read a bit more about PTSD, because I think you assume it’s something that’s quite exclusive to veterans, but you don’t realise it happens to other people. That’s where I read that gardening therapy can help people with mental illness issues, with wellbeing, and that it was really good for people with PTSD because it gave them a really good focus.

“When my husband suggested I should get an allotment, I said: “Are allotments still around?” because I remember my dad having one and visiting when I was younger, but didn’t know they still existed! I rang the council, and they said they had some spaces and it was a few weeks later that I actually got myself an allotment.”

Starting on the allotment

“I began as a complete novice, and I decided to start up an Instagram social media account, hunting for allotment and grow your own inspiration, just to see what people were doing so I could copy. If people were planting onions, I’d plant them, and then I started getting myself some books and stuff. And this is where I think there was a real turning point in my recovery. “With PTSD, it is more or less lifelong thing. It’s not something that you just get over, it’s something you learn to cope with, and I knew I needed something else because tablets and therapy aren’t lifelong coping mechanisms. So I was hoping that this garden therapy thing would work for me, and it did, it completely changed my life.

“There are so many benefits to being on the allotment, I started to feel like I was enjoying things again. I can just remember this one point where I thought, what do I want to do with the allotment moving forwards, how do I want to plan it out, and this was the first time that I’d looked forward, looked ahead into the year, rather than just getting through that day. It was quite a turning point, realising that just being down the allotment a couple of times a week was really helping me.

“When you have actual therapy, you know your having therapy, but this wasn’t like that, I’d just go down and get digging and planting, being in nature and listening to the birds, and focusing on the gardening, the exercise and physical exercise that releases endorphins [the chemicals that make you feel good] all of those things were having this positive effect on me, and two and a half years on, I’m in a completely different place. I’m not on tablets anymore, I’m not having therapy, I’ve moved on from that and now I use my allotment as my therapy, as my coping mechanism. There’s just something so wonderful about it that I can’t explain how much it’s changed my life.

“Obviously, not everybody can just get an allotment and feel better, it’s important to go and seek professional help. But there’s so much to be said for allotment spaces, growing your own as a therapy option, something that can help your mental health and wellbeing. I would not be where I am now without my allotment. I think I’ve found who I am again, it’s made me a person, rather than an empty shell, because even after therapy and tablets I didn’t feel like a person, the allotment just offers somewhere to go, it’s a little sanctuary, it’s such a beautiful place to spend time, and it’s so easy to spend time there, it’s really good for stress relief.”

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