Caitriona Kelly; Practising What I Teach

growing home growing seed sowing social and therapeutic horticulture wellness

Last week I found myself aware of a niggling feeling I couldn’t quite pinpoint. (This was before reports about the imminent arrival of the ‘Beast from the East’ began to circulate, and well before the run on bread and milk).

I decided there and then to practise what I teach.

Since the Curious Incident of the Sheep in the Night-Time (in the polytunnel), and the havoc therein wreaked, my kitchen-potting table is where it’s all going on. A pile of trays from the shed, labels, a 70-litre bag of seed compost and an array of recently acquired organic seeds and I was ready to go; a unique seed-sowing set-up, complete with blazing stove and tunes in stereo. 

I began by filling the trays with compost, easing out any lumps between my fingers, and crumbling the soil between my palms. I started with my favourite-tomatoes, carefully depositing the crumb-like seeds of Sungold, Clementine and Matina into their new beds. Next up, two trays of mixed lettuce, followed by ‘Ring of Fire’ chilli peppers. Before I knew it, I was wholly immersed.

This state of flow has been described by a host of researchers, spanning a range of disciplines. One theory* provides a useful way of thinking about the benefits of effortless attention or ‘fascination’. It has a restorative effect, helping with mental fatigue by clarifying and restructuring thoughts

A perspective grounded in occupational therapy posits that when someone is engaged in an activity, minimal attention is paid to extraneous feelings and thoughts. Importantly, an activity needs to be invested with a sense of purpose for it to be meaningful. If an activity has no meaning, it does not have a therapeutic value. Sowing seeds, is for me, intrinsically full of purpose. In fact, I can’t think of anything that makes more sense to me, or that has more meaning. Ok, so I’m getting a bit carried away, but for those of you who grow some of your own food, you’ll know where I’m coming from...

By engaging in the simple act of sowing seeds, the feeling of low-level anxiety that I’d been experiencing, had dissipated. When we experience anxiety, the limbic brain is activated, and we go into a state of high alert. Our minds scan our immediate horizons for potential difficulties, and before we know it, our present and future lives are infused with a sense of impending doom. A feedback loop is set up, which, once activated can be difficult to sidestep.

By the time I’d sown twelve trays, the energy in my body had shifted, and my mind had had a chance to rest, the loop interrupted.

Therapeutic interventions using Nature, specifically horticulture, as a medium have enormous potential to foster well-being amongst a range of client groups. If you would like to learn more about Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH), I will be delivering a host of Thrive-accredited courses in Ireland in 2018 (links). Teaching what I practise!

The first of these, a one-day beginner’s guide to STH called ‘Step into STH’ will take place in GROW HQ on Saturday March 10th from 10a.m.- 4p.m. 

*Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (1995)


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  • Leah Healy on

    Hello Caitriona. I recently read an article on the work you do in an open prison setting in Cavan and was very interested in this philosophy. I noticed you engage in social and therapeutic horticulture practice and wanted to e-mail you. I completed a weekend course with THRIVE last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was very interested in the courses that you are going to hold particularly the one focusing on mental health however, I am unfortunately away on holidays at the time. I am wondering if you will be hosting anymore similar courses? I am an Occupational Therapist working in Primary care and am always trying to find a way of weaving this into my practice with the hopes of eventually having my own land to use green space in my practice. It’s hard to know where to start at times, but it all takes time. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Warm regards,


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