Horticulture Therapy: A Gentle Healing Path through Subfertility and Loss

Girl Holding Blue Speckled Egg in Bird Nest on Lap

The Deeper Need for Healing

When I started writing this post almost three months ago, I’d intended to share some insight around how horticulture therapy can play a positive role in offsetting the stress and emotional effects we often encounter as a result of subfertility. I didn’t realise just how much more I would need to lean into gardening as a healing tool during the subsequent weeks and months that unfolded. It’s strange how simple the idea of healing, finding balance and practicing mindfulness seemed when the proximity of my grief from past losses was filtered by the distance of time. However, three months later, I sat down to write in the midst of fresh wounds while making slow and laboured daily efforts to mend my body and broken heart. As a result, these words have flowed with deeper meaning to me than they may have before, their gravity weighted with the debris of a more immediate and intimate experience.

You see, I fell pregnant during my Feb/March cycle, a beautiful unexpected blessing that happened at a time when I was having a crisis in faith around the possibility of it becoming a reality. Naturally, I was overjoyed and the initial weeks were nothing short of magic. My HCG levels were good, and I was nurturing myself and my baby through morning sickness, fatigue and a whole host of early pregnancy symptoms. However, just when I started allowing myself to relax into the idea that everything was finally working out, we discovered that it was an ectopic pregnancy. That was probably the most devastating blow I’d ever been dealt. To see the thriving little angel I’ve dreamt of for so long looking so full of life with her tiny heart beating fiercely and knowing that it was all going to have to end seemed so cruel and unfair. I fought hard against accepting it. I requested a second scan the next day hoping it would reveal that my doctor was mistaken, but it only confirmed what I’d already been told – that my baby was implanted in my right fallopian tube instead of my uterus, the tube was ruptured and I was bleeding internally. As a result, I ended up having a laparoscopic salpingectomy and my right fallopian tube was removed. I lost my baby along with a piece of my fertility.

“My garden has helped me get through difficult circumstances on many occasions. It has sustained me through a divorce, nurtured me after surgery, eased my stress during times of devastating disappointment, and sustained me through depression and grief. ”

~ Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler

Woman holding seedling in cupped hands

Ectopic Recovery… and What Horticulture Therapy has to do with it  

Those first two and a half weeks post-surgery were quite easily the hardest I’ve had to live through. And I’m not exaggerating. I honestly thought that I’d never get over the heartbreak, that I wouldn’t be able to lift the relentless and debilitating sadness that permeated every waking moment. It scared me how low I felt. I was frightened that this would be my permanent state of being, and I struggled with the idea of not knowing how to be okay again. I had thought I’d understood loss because I’d miscarried before. I’d expected that this time it would be easier for me to endure. I was wrong on both accounts. It was bewildering to discover how different experiencing an ectopic pregnancy loss was from a miscarriage, how much more jarring and devastating it was on all levels.

It was clear to me that I needed help to move through the depressive and unfamiliar space I felt lost in. So, I reached out for assistance, found supportive people to talk to and did some energy healing. I decided to create a “40 Days of Healing” process for myself in order to consciously take small day-to-day actions that supported my wellbeing and helped me heal from the loss. In the midst of reaching for guidance, I came across an article with a five step guideline that Gabrielle Bernstein offered to women who are having difficulty conceiving. One of the steps she included was to “Appreciate what’s thriving”. That idea really stuck with me, so I began a daily practice of drawing my focus to all the things around me that were thriving – my marriage, flowers, friendships, vibrant colours, writing opportunities… and, my garden. Mostly, my attention kept going to back my garden, and as a result it became a healing and grounding space where I found the sustenance and strength to navigate a journey that challenged me greatly. The soothing touch of soil, seeds and plants worked their therapeutic magic in my life, and continue to do so.

Autumn planting bulbs of flowers in the garden.

I was reminded that there is a special kind of soul medicine that comes with nurturing life, with starting cuttings and watching them take root, and with planting winter herbs in the cool wet earth after the rain. Something about the early morning garden that has always filled my heart with its gentle peace. It might be the mystery of those quiet moments where the first light returns slowly to the world, or the way the cool air settles gently on my skin like a soft kiss from a long last friend. It brings me back to my breath. It pulls me out of my head and draws me back into my body, so that it becomes an effortless exercise in mindfulness. The dew soaked grass beneath my feet is comforting. And I’ve always felt like a medicine woman of old times when I gather herbs for tea at sunrise, clip plants and transplant saplings in the stillness beneath the silver-blue sky before the busyness of everyday life sets in.

I discovered soul medicine in the constancy of the bees too. I made it my afternoon meditation to sit in the warm sunny ‘fragrant herbal corner’ of my garden and just watched the bees follow beauty, floating purposefully from flower to flower, gathering nectar from the perennial basil, borage and passionfruit daisies. I internalised their way of being by asking myself how I could mimic their approach to life – How could I purposefully seek out the nectar of life even though I felt at my lowest? How could I drink in the glimpses of sweetness that each daily experience offered even when I didn’t know how to trust in the future?

Slowly, the layers of depression began to lift. I found it easier to breathe through the heaviness. Getting out of bed in the morning became less and less of a struggle.   The passing days seemed a little less daunting as I felt more able to tackle everyday tasks again. I’d created an opening, and this made space for the essence of life to flow back in, bit by bit. Healing is a slow process and grief comes and goes in cycles. So I cannot claim to feel completely whole again. I’m not sure that I ever will. But I do feel that the worst is behind me and that I’ve come through something somewhat stunned at the level of inner strength and resilience I’ve unearthed within myself. And I do recognise the powerfully restorative role immersing myself in nature has played in my healing journey. Tending to my garden space simultaneously allowed me to tend to and nurture my inner self and my wounds.

Gardens also provide a safe haven in which to heal and renew ourselves… In a garden, we can restore our inner harmony and balance as we gain some measure of control over our lives.” ~ Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler

petit arrosoir dans semis de légumes d'un potager

Gardening as Medicine for the Body and Soul

My experience with horticulture therapy is not unique. People such as the renowned gardening personality, Monty Don, have been vocal about how gardening has helped with his depression struggles. There is science to back it. Research shows that exposure to the microbes in soil has mental health benefits, and that sunlight, fresh air and the light exercise we get while gardening also boosts our moods, relieves stress and anxiety, and aids relaxation.

Going further, horticulture therapy has been recognized as a treatment modality under the umbrella of psychological since the 19th century and looking back at its ancient roots supports the fact that this is a time proven practice. Early documents and literature tell us that the first known healing gardens date back to approximately 10,000 years ago, in 2000 BC Mesopotamia. Gardens were used for their aesthetic and therapeutic function in ancient Chinese and Japanese culture. Healing gardens were also a prominent feature in many monasteries who offered curative treatments to surrounding communities during the middle ages in Europe. In more recent times, the rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans in the 1940’s/50’s facilitated the expansion and acceptance of horticulture therapy as a remedial practice. It is applied quite successfully as therapy for children, the elderly, Alzheimer’s patients and anorexia patients in various treatment facilities around the world, engaging patients in tactile and sensory activities that improve their sense of wellbeing.

 “When I see my garden flourish, I regain my resilience, my balanced perspective, and my peace of mind. The garden has proven itself as my best medicine, my partner in recovery and restoration. Through gardening, I can always find my way back into a healthy resonance and a satisfying harmony with the world.”

 ~ Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler

Horticulture Therapy in the Context of Subfertility

I came across a moving article by Lucy Chamberlain, who wrote about how gardening provided her with a lifeline in the midst of subfertility and failed IVF. Lucy’s story resonated on various levels, and it reaffirmed my belief that the experience of tending to garden life brings with it a quiet sense of inner peace and joy that my life would be empty of otherwise. Perhaps it feeds that natural desire to create new life and the satisfaction of seeing things growing and thriving. It offers the breathing space to anchor oneself in the present and to feel held by the mothering energy of nature. This sometimes make me think of ‘Serena Joy’ in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. In Atwood’s novel, which is considered a feminist masterpiece, the garden is referred to as “the domain of the Commander’s wife [Serena Joy]” It’s an interesting coincidence that Atwood relied on this symbolism with Serena Joy, a woman who is unable to have children and who is often seen in her greenhouse nurturing and potting flowering plants in the TV series adaptation. Gardening is her therapy and I suspect that for her, as is the case with me, growing things is a fulfilling way to create and nurture life at a time when her body is unable to.

Junge Frau im Garten ließt ein Buch

Creating Your Own Therapeutic Gardening Practice

Does the idea of horticulture therapy resonate with you? If it’s something that you would like to explore, then it’s worth looking for a horticulture therapy support group in your area. If you are unable to find one, then here are some ideas to help you create your own therapeutic gardening practice:

Make your gardening time your therapy: Use your time in the garden as an opportunity to destress and release anxiety. Take deep breaths of fresh air and enjoy the soothing vibrations of your natural space. Enjoy the feel of the soil. Grow plants that are meaningful to you – your favourite flowers and uplifting colours. If you enjoy fresh fragrances, then consider creating a fragrant herbal garden to revel in their healing scents and reap their aromatherapy benefits. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, perennial basil, lemon verbena and scented geraniums are hardy and beautifully fragrant. Investigate growing plants that attract bees, butterflies and birds as this is a good way of inviting garden life and vibrant energy into your space. Put up bird baths, feeders and nesting boxes. Take time to watch things grow and appreciate your space. It is so rewarding knowing that not only are you tending to your garden, but you are nurturing your wellbeing and thus your fertility as well.

Create a Fertility Garden Meditation Corner:  Create a space in your garden where you can sit, relax, enjoy the sun and watch the activity in your lively garden unfold. Sit in quiet contemplation, sip some tea and allow yourself to mindfully breathe and observe the simplicity of life. Take time to journal, do a fertility meditation or work with your fertility mantras.  Sarah Clark has a lovely free garden inspired fertility meditation available for download on her Fab Fertile website. Notice any messages or lessons that your natural surround may be mirroring to you. Observe the creative power of nature. Draw it all in, reminding yourself of your own body’s creative power and trust your womb’s ability to create new life in the same way.

Bring Nature into Your Home: Get some indoor plants and flowers. Choose plants that are low maintenance, hardy and easy to tend to. Try your hand at keeping some herbs on a sunny kitchen windowsill so that you can pick them easily and use them while cooking. Get some pretty flowering bulbs, they always make beautiful and uplifting table centerpiece and liven up dreary corners. Plant your indoor plants in places where you will be able to see and appreciate their beauty as they grow. Also consider putting a bird bath or feeder outside a sunny window where you can sit indoors and simple are the sprightly birds at play.

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Fertility Mala: How to use Prayer Beads as a Tool for Meditation + Mindfulness

Nothing has called me to lean into my mindfulness and soul therapy practices more than my fertility journey has. I am reminded frequently why creating space to center myself when life is chaotic is so necessary for my wellbeing. One tool that has been helpful in doing so is a mala or set of prayer beads. Prayer beads have been used for centuries in various cultures and different religions – the rosary in Catholicism, the mala in Buddhism and Hinduism, the komboloi (worry beads) used by the ancient Greeks, to name a few. When you scratch beneath the surface, it is interesting to discover that the word ‘bead’ in its original form actually means ‘prayer’. It is derived from the old English and Germanic words ‘bede’/ ‘gebede’ / ‘bid’, which mean to ‘bid one’s prayers’ or ‘to pray’. So, it seems that for thousands of years something as simple as a string of beads was intended to be used as a tool for sacred conversations, mindfulness, to calm anxiety and anchor one in the present moment.

Concentrated woman praying with wooden rosary mala beads. Close up, focus on incense stick. Retro vintage filter.

Discovering Prayer Beads

My first introduction to prayer beads was from my grandmother. I grew up watching her devotion to her daily spiritual practice. Each morning upon waking and each evening before bed, she carved out time for her prayers and meditation. As a kid, I was fascinated by her use of prayer beads as a means to mindfully hold her focus on whatever it was that she was meditating about. There seemed to be something deeply sacred in bearing witness to her state of communion with Spirit, gently rubbing each prayer bead between her fingers as she quietly whispered her holy bidding to Mother Mary, often contemplating the divine nature of the feminine experience – the joys and sufferings of both womanhood and motherhood.

In my teens, the beautiful nun who gave me religious instruction classes once a week gifted me my own set of prayer beads. It was a rosary from Fatima, made up of pale green beads that glowed in the dark at night. It always made me feel safe. When I was overcome with fear or anxiety at night, I’d hold it in my hand, still my thoughts and bring my attention to the vibration of love, joy and the feeling of being protected by my guardian angels. It restored my sense of security and put me at ease. To this day, I still keep that rosary at my bedside together with my mala beads. Although my growth and spiritual development has allowed me to explore various paths to presence and inner peace over the years, this is one practice that continues to play a positive and healing role in maintaining my peace of mind.

Creating My Fertility Mala

I recently had a rose quartz and moonstone mala custom-made specifically for my fertility mindfulness practice. I’ve had wonderful experiences using crystals for my meditation and healing journey. I’ve heard so many positive stories about the use of fertility crystals, and have personally felt the benefit of working with them to balance my energy or using them as intention stones. So the idea of using fertility crystals in my mala really resonated with me. I’ve quickly fallen in love with my fertility mala. It came in a beautiful pink satin pouch that I’ve filled with dried rose petals from my garden and scented with two drops of rose essential oil.

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It always feels deeply soothing to hold a string of mala beads between my fingers or to wear it around my neck, harnessing in the energy of the crystals. When I rub the individual beads softly, I focus my attention on my breathing – inhaling, exhaling and allowing myself to quietly release the cluttered thoughts that crowd my mind – the constant worries about supplements, bloodwork results, OPKS and never ending appointments. With every breath I take, I sense myself relaxing more completely and becoming more grounded in calm. I close my eyes and whisper gratitude prayers, mindfulness mantras or fertility affirmations into the ethers in the same way that my grandmother does. The doubt and the fear start to dissipate when I do. I find myself leaning inward, enveloped in the warm comforting essence of stillness and somehow remembering how to trust in myself, how to trust my body and my journey in the midst of uncertainty and frustration.

Woman, lit hand close up, counts Malas, strands of gemstones beads used for keeping count during mantra meditations on pink background

How to Use a Fertility Mala

Remember that you can work with different visualizations, mantras and meditations depending on what you need most at the time. You may choose to keep it simple and just focus on being present with the rhythm of your breath. Or you can practice calming meditations for deep relaxation, meditate on the different phases of your menstrual cycle or focus on specific fertility affirmations. The following is a basic mala meditation guideline:

  • Find a quiet place to sit down comfortably and become centered, calm and present.
  • Hold the mala in your hand and drape it between your middle and index finger.
  • Place your thumb on the first bead, bearing in mind that you will use your thumb to count the beads when work your way along the string.
  • Take a deep breath in, focus on inhaling hope and positivity. (you can use your thumb to gently rub the bead as you do if you like)
  • As you exhale, visualize releasing doubt and fear from your body and your mind.
  • Move your thumb to the next bead on the string and repeat the visualization as you do: Inhale hope and positive energy, exhale doubt, stress and fear.
  • Then move on to the next bead, allowing yourself to relax, surrender as you continue focusing on the rhythm of your breath and visualization.

Incorporating fertility affirmations:

Place your thumb on the first bead. Take a moment to meditate on what it will feel like when you are pregnant or are holding your baby in your arms. Draw this wonderful feeling into your mala meditation.

Inhale and focus on the affirmation: “I am fertile.” Exhale, saying: “I trust in the creative power of my body and my womb.”

Move your thumb to the next bead. Rubbing it softly, inhale saying: “I am fertile.” Exhale with the affirmation: “Each step forward takes me closer to my beautiful, happy and healthy baby.”

Visualize the experience of a healthy full-term pregnancy and the motherhood drawing closer and closer to you with every breath as you work your way along the string of mala beads.

Thoughts on Tending to Your Inner Wellbeing & Finding Healing After Miscarriage

Monday greetings to you! It’s new day and new week, and tomorrow the vibrant full moon will grace us with her luminous feminine beauty. Are you finding ways to keep breathing and to nurture yourself as you put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time? I hope so.

There are a few new blogposts that explore different paths to integrating mindfulness, energy/womb healing, relaxation practices and self-care rituals into your fertility journey coming to this space soon. I’ll be posting this new content over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I  wanted to take a moment to share two articles that I had published on Fertility Road Magazine and Harness Magazine recently:

3 Ways to Tend to Your Inner Wellbeing: One key lesson that my personal experience of fertility challenges has taught me is that tending to your inner self is just as important as nurturing your body’s health and wellbeing when it comes your fertility journey. With this in mind, I recently wrote an article for Fertility Road Magazine offering three ways in which you can work on taking care of your inner world and supporting your emotional wellbeing when the going gets tough…Click to Read the Full Article.

Finding Healing in Unexpected Places: Finding balance and healing beyond miscarriage is not an easy thing to do. In my most recent article for Harness Magazine, I wrote a piece about my personal experience of Finding Healing in Unexpected Places:

“Yet, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been holding in until we’d arrived there—the heaviness, the stress and tension in my body, and the deep sadness that seemed to permeate everything. I was exhausted. I felt broken and emotionally depleted. Between grieving a miscarriage, getting to grips with the challenges of infertility, taking on too many new projects to avoid my reality and working myself to the point of burnout, it had been a grueling year. However, within hours of arriving at the coast, I felt the layers of built-up tension stripping away from my body and soul…” Read Full Article Here…

Happy reading ❤