Tabi Jackson Gee | Contributing Writer | Saturday, 9 September 2017

What Happened When I Left My Job And London To Become...A Landscape Gardener

Why I Gave Up Life In The City To Retrain As A Gardener

The Debrief: In 12 months I’ve gone from wanting to be the next Carrie Bradshaw to the next Charlie Dimmock.

'How are your feet holding up?' my friend asked sympathetically. 'Fine. I mean, I can’t feel my toes' I replied - without a hint of irony - 'but I can still walk.'  It was day three of London Fashion Week, and 72 hours of wearing a series of spectacularly ill-chosen footwear and standing in line had taken its toll on more than just my feet.

Don’t feel too sorry for me, though. This time last year that was exactly where I wanted to be: minus the blisters.  Invitations to incredible shows. Interview time with top designers. Bylines, cool clothes, cooler parties. Yep, 365 days ago I was about as far away from being a gardener as you could possibly get - asides from a few cautiously purchased houseplants.

And, on reflection, that’s where I was probably going a bit wrong. Because there is no denying that I’m much more at home knee deep in mud than I’ve ever felt prancing around town in Preen Line.  I  prefer the simple life. In fact, I love it. And I’d been missing it without even realising.

This interlude, this foray into the world of fashion, PR breakfasts, all nighters and fast paced full-time city-living which lasted most of my twenties was, it turns out, just a bump in the road. The road that led me full circle: right back to living at home again. Training to be a gardener. In 12 months I’ve gone from wanting to be the next Carrie Bradshaw to the next Charlie Dimmock. A pair who have little in common apart from their apparent disdain for bras.

Prior to this, I had wanted to live in London for as long as I can remember. And right now, most of us are continuing to swarm to urban areas. 54% of the global population to be precise. By 2050 that number is predicted to rise to 70%. But urban living has been linked to depression and, sadly, depression amongst young adults is at an all time high. The research suggests that the need to live in a big city to get a good job and 'Make It' is really bad for our health. 

A recent study by Stanford University looked at the difference in happiness levels between those who spend their time in green spaces and those who don’t.  Some of the participants in this study were sent on a 90-min walk through a natural environment. They reported lower levels of rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self)) and showed reduced activity in the part of the brain linked to mental illness, compared with those who were sent through an urban environment. 

Whilst you may not need a study to tell you being outdoors is good for your health - both mental and physical - it’s increasingly hard to find the time to be in nature if you’re young, broke, and living in a city. The long working hours demanded by an insecure job market mean we’re in the office for longer. That leaves only the weekends to be outside, which in the middle of the winter doesn’t give you much time.

Another study found that women and men who spent more time in nature reported having a more positive body image. As someone who’s recently traded an overpriced boutique gym membership for weeding and digging - I can concur. I guess you feel better about your body if you’re actually using it for something, not just looking at it in the mirror in front of the running machine while you, quite literally, pound the road to nowhere (if that's not existential crisis-inducing I don't know what is). 

Realising I personally needed to be outside more did not happen suddenly, in some glorious light bulb moment. Rather, it came slowly. The catalyst was what I can only describe as one of the worst experiences of my life involving an unpleasant boss, a lot of tears (mine,  sadly, not his). And at one point - a lawyer. 

But I do also have him to thank (middle finger pointed directly up, mind.) Because spending months hunched over my laptop, drifting between outright rage and feeling inconsolably blue, while my confidence took a complete battering, made a few things very clear. I realised how much I missed fresh air and feeling physically tired from a day spent outdoors.  I missed working with other people. None of these were things I could do as a full-time freelance journalist.

I’ve always thought of gardening as something I’d end up doing when I was, like, way older. But earlier this year I began to use outdoor time as a way to alleviate my stress. Going home to the countryside and helping my mum in the garden was just one of the things I’d do, besides exercise, to try to calm my nerves and ground myself again, all the while trying to keep my head above water at work.

Recently an increasing number of London medical bodies have begun to put their own version of this into practice. MIND Camden ran a volunteering program at Kentish Town City Farm, while last year doctors in Lambeth started prescribing gardening time, with the help of Lambeth GP Food Co-operative. Patients prescribed with this get to enjoy the physical and mental therapeutic benefits of gardening, at the same time as growing local produce. 

'I find it massively restorative' agrees Alice Vincent, a gardening writer whose book How To Grow Stuff is full of inspiration for novice gardeners. 'I try to get out on the balcony for just a couple of minutes every morning, take in the light and the weather, see how the plants are doing. It's a tiny bit of calm that levels me before I start the day.' 

I’m only a month into the next chapter of my life - living at home and trying to fit in gardening work around writing - but I’ve already noticed the benefits. Being outdoors is making me more creative. I have more space to think and, the irony, I guess, is that I have three times more ideas while I’m in the middle of a herbaceous border than I ever did sitting indoors staring at my computer and waiting for inspiration to come. Gardening may take up some of my week’s working hours, but it makes up for it by making me so much more productive. 

That’s not to say life has suddenly become easier. A new set of challenges have presented themselves - namely, trying to overcome the fear that I may have just totally lost the plot. Period pains hurt even more when you’re lugging bags of compost around. The weather is problematic. And Monday’s can still be melancholy regardless of whether you have to do a commute or not. 

But I have never felt quieter and more content than after a day of digging. It feels real and gloriously normal. Which in a world of nuclear threats, fake news, and rapid urbanisation is something to treasure.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Where Has Our Gardening Obsession Come From?

Lessons On Growing Up: The Bittersweet Reality Of Turning 29 

Is Money The Last Great Friendship Divide?

Follow Tabi on Instagram @tabijgee 

Tags: Working Girls