When Ireland went into lockdown back in March, our homes suddenly became our whole world. But rather than huddling fearfully, waiting for the Covid-19 storm to pass, many of us took a good look around and discovered new facets to our living spaces. And some of us dared to step outside and explore a place we hadn’t visited for a long time – our back gardens.
Some people are blessed with a big, sprawling landing-strip of a lawn; others have to make do with a small, scrappy bit of backyard. But the pandemic offered everyone a chance to maximise their outdoor space and establish their own haven far from the madding, social distance-disdaining crowd. It didn’t matter whether it was a lush garden, a small patio or just a balcony – as long as it had some form of vegetation – either plants, trees or just window-boxes, then you had the makings of a positively therapeutic space to relax and replenish the soul.
Owen Connolly knows the value of a garden space for maintaining a good headspace. The Dublin therapist has helped many people work through trauma in their lives, and his passion for nurturing people’s mental health and wellbeing is evident in the work he does as director of the Connolly Counselling Centre in Stillorgan. When he comes home to his house in Dundrum at the end of a long day’s counselling, though, he tunes into another passion – for planting and growing things in his lush back garden.
“It’s a real haven,” he tells me, as we sip tea in a cosy corner of the kitchen created to maximise his view of the garden. “When the trees are in full leaf, you can’t see any of the other houses – you might as well be out in the country.”
He clearly has the knack for gardening too; according to his wife, Claire, Connolly could “get a stick, put it into the ground, and it would grow”.
Standing proudly in the garden is an impressive-looking Arbutilon, which Connolly grew from a cutting given to him 40 years ago by a friend, Kitty Huddlestone. In the summer, it is replete with blue flowers – an absolute showpiece.
Many people have objects at home they treasure whose unchanging nature is a comfort to them. Connolly, however, finds joy in the lifecycle, and many of the plants in his garden trigger memories of people and times in his life.
“People become attached to objects, but objects don’t become attached to people,” says Connolly. “Part of the lifecycle is that we have this opportunity to make a change in our lives every day. You have been designed with choice, and the choice you make designs you.”
Connolly has built a large patio outside the back door where he and Claire cultivate a wide variety of potted plants. They’re old hands at it – the couple used to run a garden centre in Clonmel. Connolly has also built a small summer house out the back, with huge panes of glass, so he and Claire can spend time in the midst of their garden and get the full benefit of the evening sun that pours in.
“We like to just sit here in calm, looking out into the garden, then maybe pick a few raspberries, gooseberries or blackcurrants for the lunch.”
The summer house hasn’t just been plonked there – Connolly carefully designed it to follow the line of the main house with near-perfect symmetry. “I suppose I must have a dose of OCD,” he laughs.
But if the building adheres to a strict geometric formula, the garden itself is a gloriously chaotic riot of colours, shapes and textures. There are no neat hedgerows or fastidious flowerbeds – plants, shrubs, trees, cuttings and creepers spring up all over the place with no regard for order or uniformity. The result is a sense of vibrancy and movement – you feel if you closed your eyes and opened them again, everything in the garden would have changed places.
Even the summer house diverges from the plans: a long vine snakes right through the structure, coming in from the side and winding its way up along the wall and the ceiling. “I get grapes off that every year,” says Connolly.
To this day they (children) still have that great great love of planting, sowing and growing
Connolly’s love of gardening began when he was a child, “hanging out of my grandfather’s leg”. “He was a superb gardener, he just loved his garden,” recalls Connolly. “He would cycle home from work and straight away go out to the garden. He fed the entire family out of his garden. As soon as I knew he was home, I’d be down there helping him to put the potatoes in. We’d just be out there listening to the birds.
When lockdown started Connolly didn’t think of it in terms of inconvenience or disruption. He saw it as a golden opportunity for parents to spend more quality time at home and in the garden with their kids. Now the kids are nearly back in school for nearly two months, but the situation remains precarious, with the threat of a Level 5 lockdown looming. For children and he believes it’s important not to lose that reconnection established with family members. The best way, says Connolly, is for parents to get out into the garden with their kids and start them making and growing. “Even if they started to build a window box and sow a few seeds in it, so that they’re working with the child and engaging with the process of growing things, that would be hugely rewarding. The benefit to that child later on is expressed even by my own children, who would have been out in the garden with me and observing and learning. To this day they still have that great great love of planting, sowing and growing, and my grandchildren also help in the garden.”
For children experiencing anxiety during this unprecedented time, the garden can take on a new role as an outdoor therapy room, a place to unwind and let the worries of the world fall away for a few hours.
“You don’t have to have a passion for gardening, and you don’t have to be good at it,” insists Connolly. “All you have to do is get a packet of seeds – lettuce would be the simplest because it comes up so fast. What is beautiful is that when you put a seed into the ground you don’t have to do anything else. A little bit of water, a little bit of kindness, and you’ll see it coming to life. There’s nothing more exciting for a child than to see that happen, because all life starts like that. And it’s a great opportunity for talk and chat.”
The Covid-19 crisis forced Connolly (76), to shut down his counselling centre in Stillorgan for several months, and he and Claire self-isolated at home. Connolly stayed in contact with his clients and offered comfort and reassurance remotely. His advice for anyone feeling lonely, isolated or fearful is to “ring a friend, call a neighbour, go into communication mode – use the wonderful technology we have”.
There’s no better place to breathe than out in your garden
During the summer, Connolly had his own health scare – going into hospital for a routine procedure, he contracted sepsis and was in intensive care for a couple of weeks. Now he’s back at work at the counselling centre, but he looks forward even more to getting back to his garden, where he can rest and continue his recovery.
Connolly recommends deep breathing exercises as a coping technique, because proper breathing helps you wind down, and also gets vital oxygen into your lungs. Part of Connolly’s work is helping children with anxiety issues, and he teaches them “teddy surfing” – putting their teddy on their tummy and breathing deeply.
“Lie down, put a book on your tummy, breathe through your nose, and if you’re lifting the book up and down then you’re doing it right. What you’re doing is giving lashings of oxygen to the lungs. And of course there’s no better place to breathe than out in your garden.”
As the country comes to terms with another round of lockdown restrictions, Connolly offers sage advice: “Cutting the grass, planting seeds – it takes the mind off the horrors that are continuing. You don’t need to be watching the TV 24 hours a day. There’s nothing better than to engage with growing something, creating something. When I go into my garden, I feel like I’m visiting my own soul. It just takes me away from the troubles and the torments of the world.”