Mental Well Being in an Open Prison by Caitriona Kelly

Last week, back when the memory of rain-sodden fields and water-rich clay soil was still fresh, the 16-week programme in therapeutic horticulture at Loughan House Open Prison in Cavan came to a close. The programme started in early March with two groups; one a beginner’s group of twelve men, the other a group of six, all of whom had had prior experience of gardening and horticulture. That the time has flown (perhaps not the most appropriate of expressions given the setting) is testament to the fact that the overall experience of working in a prison setting, has been hugely rewarding and enriching.    

We’d meet once a week, moving between classroom, polytunnel and outdoor beds under the vast Cavan sky, often between gaps in the rain and the wind. A range of topics were explored both in theory and practice, including seed-sowing, transplanting, growing in a polytunnel, composting, herbs, growing edible flowers, dealing with pernicious horsetail and doing pH soil tests. Lettuce, spinach, peas, tomatoes, borage, calendula, chilli peppers, runner beans, French beans were all grown from seed, with the beginner’s group completing a Level 3 QQI module in Outdoor Crop Production as part of the process. Classroom-based activities aimed to engage and stimulate critical thinking, by using problem-posing teaching techniques, at the same time enabling people improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

Gathered around the potting table, or outside on hunkers with hands in the soil, spaces would open up for stories to emerge. A traumatic childhood, the shame of mistakes made, plans for the future ‘outside’.

The benefits of social and therapeutic horticulture within the arena of mental health have been widely researched and documented, and include improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence, social inclusion, achieving a sense of purpose and responsibility, hope, lifelong learning and accessing Nature. Mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety are common to many within the prisoner population.

Some of the men spoke of how “it’s good for your head” and how “it gives you a focus” and “helps to pass the time”.  One man has decided that he wants to study and work in horticulture when he gets out, having accrued an astounding wealth of knowledge about vegetable growing over the four months.

Another young man poignantly said, “you get to fail here in the garden, and it doesn’t matter”.

These words were echoed by a participant on a one-day Thrive introductory course in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture that I delivered in Cork a few weeks ago. When asked about the potential benefits of horticulture and gardening she said, “you can make mistakes, learn from them, and just try it all over again”.

From my own experience, the process of recovery from mental ill-health, begins with an acceptance of oneself, and necessarily includes the parts of ourselves we often unconsciously pummel with critical thoughts. Learning to identify these thoughts and replacing them with ones which are imbued with acceptance, self-compassion and love enables us make mistakes, learn from them, heal and try afresh.


If you would like to learn more about how Social and Therapeutic Horticulture can be used to promote mental well-being, GIY will be delivering a 2-day Thrive accredited course  entitled Using Horticulture to Benefit People with Mental Health Support Needs which will take place on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th July 10am - 4pm at GROW HQ in Waterford.

This is a wonderful opportunity to receive accreditation by Thrive, the UK-based charity with 40 years' experience in using gardening as a therapeutic medium, across a range of client groups. Thrive are the leading experts in delivering training to individuals and organisations.


Photo Credit: The Irish Times / Barry Cronin

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