Therapeutic gardening and thinking about the future

If you’ve only know chaos, you don’t bother about next year, next week, tomorrow or even ‘later’.

‘There’s a time to plant and a time to reap’. If you’ve only known chaos, life has no rhythm and it’s terrifying.

You completely and utterly fully focus on surviving the very moment and the very place in which you find yourself.

We fostered a little boy who approached life fully engaged in the ‘present tense’. The future, no matter how near or how distant, held no interest to him, and in fact ‘later’ was a concept that he was yet to grasp.

For him, when he arrived, days had no rhythm. Weekdays and weekends were non existent. There was not even a night or a day. If there was food, you ate all you could whenever you could. There were no mealtimes. You slept when you fell asleep, regardless of where you were and whether the sun was shining.

Life had been so unpredictable that he’d never learnt to look forward to anything. He knew nothing of reward or consequence. He just knew how to survive, and at this he’d had to become an expert.

We’re a pretty orthodox family, and he gradually began to adapt to our daily rhythms. It took time, and an enormous amount of patience on our behalf, but he gradually learnt that when it got dark, and when CBeebies finished, it was time for bath and bed.

He learnt that when plates and cutlery appeared on the table, it was time for tea, even if you had to wait a few minutes. He learnt that if you watched the plate in the microwave go round and round, eventually it would ping, and your sausage and bean mix (Smart Price was his favourite) would be warm and ready to eat. He learnt that there were some days when you didn’t go to school.

Watching the microwave rotate for 60 seconds was one of the little boy’s highlights of the day. For a while his favourite food was ‘sausages and beans with a side of broccoli’. When the microwaved pinged he’d do a giddy little dance of delight.

These days were different and he found them incredibly difficult. To be blunt, we found them difficult too.

Deviation form the routine was what he craved and what he needed. The more predictable the day, the better.

Consequently, we took up gardening.

For a season our Saturdays followed a simple routine.

We got dressed, we put on our wellington boots, we got our two trowels and we dug little holes in the garden. The holes varied in width and in depth. Some resembled sink holes that could have swallowed a bus.

Our little boy became an enthusiastic digger of bulb holes. Few were as big as this bomb crater from WWII, but you get the idea.

Into each hole, a bulb, perhaps a snowdrop, a tulip or a daffodil was ceremoniously shoved. The soil was replaced and stamped down with all the force an underweight four year old could muster.

Some unlucky bulbs were then watered. Two minutes blasting with the hose forced some daffodils and tulips back to the surface where they bobbed about in a puddle, looking really rather forlorn.

As established above, ‘waiting and patience’ were not a part of our little boy’s skill set when he first arrived.

But he learnt.

He learnt that there would always be food in his new home.

He learnt that you went to bed, you got up, you went to school, you came home, you watched Peppa Pig and then you ate your sausage and beans. He learnt that the new adults in his life were predictable. He could rely on us doing what we said we were going to do, when we said we were going to do it. In fostering terms, this is called therapy. This predictability helped him regulate, and reduced the heightened sense of alert in which he’d lived. He began to relax.

Although our bulb planting technique was far from orthodox, many daffodils, tulips and snowdrops flourished under our approach.

‘These bulbs are rubbish and stupid Phil. They are just doing nothing’.

Our little boy had started a ‘bulb vigil’, but in spite of regular checking, nothing appeared to be happening. He was disappointed by their slow rate of progress.

I took on the role of a wise old man, even though I was only 47 and still had a full head of naturally brown hair.

“Under the surface, where we can’t see, the bulbs are growing, and then as it gets warmer, little green shoots will appear and then there will be flowers.”

Look at this meadow of beauty and colour! Our reality was slightly different, but quite frankly we’d had a lot of fun and had learnt about ‘waiting’, so we didn’t care.

“Will I still be living here when that happens Phil?”

“Yes, you will still be living here then.”

“That’s good. It’s ok living here.”

Our little boy had begun to see a future.

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Birth parent, Foster Carer, Adopter and Recruiter of Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council

2 thoughts on “Therapeutic gardening and thinking about the future”

  1. An 8 year old we fostered was obsessed with our tatty family calendar. When he first arrived from his version of the chaos you mentioned, he both liked and struggled with the routine he encountered in our home, which led to him questioning why things weren’t like that where he lived before. The calendar for him was a way to justify the situation and make sense of his divided loyalties – He explained this to me when we were on our way to Tesco’s cafe for Friday treat of hot chocolate – that was why we kept our promises – because we wrote them on the calendar – his mum didn’t have a calendar you see…


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