“Gardening is proven to be a way to engage with others and practice mindful self-care”

Gardening is proven to be a way to engage with others and practice mindful self-care. We say that “getting a little dirty” is good and we’ve seen it work first-hand. Gardening activities invite social conversations, meditation, and healthy eating habits. Gardening is definitely a way to practice self-care year-round.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donna Letier.

Donna Letier is the co-founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer gardening company, Gardenuity. She started the business as a woman in her 50s, when most everyone was telling her to slow down, she said, “No,” and created a purpose-driven brand to bring wellness right to people’s front doors. She has a blend of start-up and big corporate experience, and has held marketing leadership roles at Neiman Marcus, Borders, MGM, Barneys NY, and Celebrating Home. She is the mother of two daughters and her youngest Jillian is one of her biggest motivations as she has severe special needs but perseveres every day. Donna and Gardenuity are on a growing mission to make gardening, and thereby wellness, accessible to everyone every day.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Growing up, my family moved around a lot. Singapore, Alaska, and London were a few of my favorite places that we lived. Our family was close and moving always seemed like a fun adventure. I grew up hearing my dad tell me I could do anything I wanted to do — I was lucky to be surrounded by a supportive family who had deep roots of faith. This faith has been a pillar for me throughout my life. I am the mother of two great kids who inspire me every day with their strength and resilience. My youngest daughter has very severe special needs. The doctors told me she would not live past five. That was not an option for me (or her), and I am happy to say she is now 24, still non-verbal and non-ambulatory but happy and full of joy every day. She is also a Special Olympics Gold Medalist, and it’s a medal that reminds me every single day that if you believe you can do something, work hard, and have faith, you can. I guess that is why I am so passionate about well-being; I get my strength from helping others find the joy in growing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are so many, it’s hard to choose! Having lunch with Stanley Marcus, meeting Johnny Depp, traveling to India, China, across the US, and working alongside amazing people are some of the top ones that come to mind. With each career move, I grew more and more confident in the leader I wanted to be but also learned about the leader I did not want to be. My boss at Neiman Marcus, Jerry Murphy, taught me about the power of showing you care. I had been working 16-hour days during the holiday season, and one morning I went into his office to go over the numbers and fainted. He had someone drive me home to rest and later that afternoon my doorbell rang for me to find that he had hot soup delivered to me. Keep in mind, this was way before Uber Eats or Postmates. He had actually taken the time out of his day to coordinate a soup delivery during a busy pre-holiday shopping day. This simple act of kindness has shaped the kind of leader I am today. Sometimes it is the little details that make the biggest impact.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Selfcare is never selfish. So often we write off taking a break because we feel guilty about not using every minute productively. Taking a break for ourselves is an essential part of taking care of others. In full disclosure, I am not always great at self-care. Growing a business, navigating parenting a child with special needs, nurturing friendships -sometimes I notice my healthy routines need a reboot. I know how easy it is to deprioritize your own care, even when we know we need it because when life gets crazy, self-care can be the first to go. Thankfully, we can all find the time to reboot and re-prioritize. Find the time to savor ordinary moments, like watering your garden first thing in the morning, use micro-steps to self-care, and find joy in the ordinary, knowing these can by your own personal wins. Sometimes life calls for chocolate, but when we take the time to appreciate little moments of beauty and connection, it makes all the difference.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Lead by example, listen to your employees, be vulnerable, and participate. Lead like Lasso. Coach Ted Lasso is genuinely interested in every person on the team. He leads with enthusiasm, does thoughtful gestures daily, and works to form real friendships with his team. Today, these thoughtful gestures are more important than ever, especially with people navigating the new normal. I think some sort of flexible, hybrid work model is here to stay, and we all need to figure out how to ensure the company culture is evident no matter where people are working. Any crisis provides an opportunity to grow and keeping the culture and well-being of our employees and customers at the forefront of our thoughts is paramount for businesses today. Putting programs in place that support emotional, physical, and social well-being is key. The best thing we can do for people is to give them permission to invest in themselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence- we can all choose to bloom. As I mentioned earlier, I moved around a lot growing up and the first thing my mom would do when we moved to a new place was to hang a little plaque that said, “Bloom where you are planted.” As I have gotten older and had the honor of being the mom to two wonderful girls, I have changed the wording just a little to, “Choose to Bloom.” Life is a choice, optimism is a choice, faith is a choice, and gratitude for the opportunity to bloom is a gift.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

Workplace wellness was generally an afterthought for organizations until employee assistance programs came about in the 1950s when companies began offering wellness interventions. The Johnson & Johnson’s Live for Life program, which became known as the prototype for big corporate worksite wellness programs, was started in 1979. Companies have come a long way, today 88% of employers are investing in mental health programs, 81% are investing in stress management programs, and 61% of employees report that they have had a healthy lifestyle change since they enrolled in their workplace wellness program. Companies now are looking at wellbeing holistically. From meditation rooms, weekly chair massages, nap pods, and family wellness programs. A few of my favorite examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Asana set a precedence that Wednesdays are no meeting days
  • Intuit shares mindful moment tips on the company whiteboards
  • Genentech rolled out the Headspace app to all of its employees
  • Salesforce, Walmart, JP Morgan Chase, and Zoom have integrated Thrive Global into their wellness initiative through science backed micro-steps

At Gardenuity, we are partnering with amazing companies like Cigna, Care Centrix, Uber, Salesforce, and JPMorgan Chase on bringing the mental, physical, and social benefits of gardening to their employees and customers. We host gardening workshops with over 200 companies across the country. Whether it is patio container gardens or desktop gardens, we share the benefits of gardening with groups every day and we’re excited to be a part of the wellness category that is addressing holistic well-being.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Today the Chief People Officers and HR teams are in the spotlight. They have taken on a key role of importance, like that of the CFO in 2009. Well-being is in the forefront, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it has a direct impact to the bottom line.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community, and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

Stress in life is unavoidable, but cumulative stress is avoidable. One of the biggest obstacles in supporting those who are struggling with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and stress is to get them to talk about it. The stigma of mental health is no longer a barrier and inviting people to talk about the challenges they are facing is a great start.

In the same way we educate communities about the importance of physical health, it’s critical we start conversations about mental health issues and how to recognize and treat them. It’s critical to create opportunities of engagement and get involved in activities that require mindfulness. The key is to participate in things that help us stay in the present, like meditation, gardening, cooking, and exercising. Practice self-compassion, connect with others, establish a routine of healthy habits, and prioritize your self-care.

Gardening is proven to be a way to engage with others and practice mindful self-care. We say that “getting a little dirty” is good and we’ve seen it work first-hand. Gardening activities invite social conversations, meditation, and healthy eating habits. Gardening is definitely a way to practice self-care year-round.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

The idea of sticking to a routine may seem passe to many but incorporating healthy habits consistently into your daily behaviors can improve your mental health. Research has shown that establishing routines is a great way to maintain physical, emotional, social, and mental health especially during stressful times. I think the first step is to explore what lifestyle changes you can make that will become part of your daily routine and that align with your personal interests.

Great sleep is crucial. We all need to rest and recharge, so figure out habits and small micro steps that can help you fall into great sleep easily. One of my favorites is adding “Moon Milk” to my evening ritual. This, along with turning all your digital devices off, making sure your bedding is clean and fresh, and keeping the temperature cool are great micro steps to getting a great night’s sleep.

Let the light shine. Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning increases feelings of wakefulness. Experiencing bright light first thing in the morning also plays an important role in regulating the secretion of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone the body releases at night. So really, a good night’s sleep starts in the morning.

Find your moment to meditate. Put into practice the habit of morning mediation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can help restore your calm and inner peace.

Grow a garden. When you plant and nurture a garden, however big or small, is a way to practice acceptance, move beyond perfectionism, and develop a growth mindset. I combine my morning meditation, need for sunlight, and gardening all into one. In the morning after a run, I go out to my patio and water my container gardens. It is my time to grow gratitude, be still, appreciate the growth and connect with the world around me. I am not thinking about my inbox, the laundry, or the long to do list; instead, I am appreciating the growth and the benefits of being a part of something that yields so many benefits.

Exercise. We all need to move. Movement is linked to a reduction in depression and anxiety. When you can get into the habit of exercising every day, your mental and physical health will improve.

A well-balanced diet. There is a direct connection between diet and emotions that stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract. Good nutrition can set you up for fewer mood fluctuations and an overall happier outlook on life. “Eat your greens” is good advice we have all heard our entire life. There is good reason: spinach and other leafy greens provide your brain with solid amounts of folic acid which has been shown to be a great deterrent of depression.

Do you use any meditation, breathing, or mind-calming practices that promote your mental well-being? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

My husband Scott is a big meditator, and he has tried on numerous occasions to teach me, usually resulting in some giggles on my end and frustration on his. What I know is the practice of meditation is key to self-care, and meditation looks different for everyone. I have found my moments of quiet meditation happen early in the morning when I am watering my gardens and again first thing in the morning when I sit down at my desk to get my day started. In the morning, when I am watering my gardens, it is the only time of the day I am not attached to a digital device. It is when I can be quiet, reflect on growth, gratitude and all that is growing around me. Learning to meditate (my way) has been a way for me to keep my anxiety at bay and heightened my personal sense of well-being. I connect best with the practice of Transcendental Meditation mixed with Mindfulness Meditation. I am not perfect at practicing it every day, but I try. Meditation helps me cultivate a growth mindset and nurturing a garden you have planted gives you to perfect environment to practice.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Three books come to mind: The Little Engine That Could, Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, and Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo.

All three of these offer insightful advice on never giving up. Challenges come and go, but when you believe you can do something, you will- everything is “figureoutable”. I moved and changed schools after first grade, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh grade. Every new year presented a book report project. I just reused, updated, and refreshed my book report on Helen Keller. Every year when I reread the book for the book report, I would discover something new. The way Helen Keller approached her challenges stuck with me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thank you for that, I am not sure my kids would agree. I am a mom, wife, friend, daughter, sister, and entrepreneur. As part of the Gardenuity team I have the opportunity to share Gardenuity’s mission and if sharing that mission influences others to experience the benefits of gardening, then we all win. When we started Gardenuity we had the vision of making gardening experiences accessible to everyone. It is resonating with people across the country from every demographic. We are changing the belief that gardening is hard. Gardening experiences empower people to grow gratitude, practice self-care, and address their mental well-being. Our hope is to see a garden on every desktop and patio across the country knowing the experience of getting a little dirty will help people improve people’s social, physical, and mental health.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

They can follow along on our website www.Gardenuity.com and on our Instagram as well at @Gardenuity. We also have a great blog on our website called The Sage where we talk about all kinds of topics from great garden-inspired cocktail recipes to how HR can affect employee health. We also post inspiring stories and ideas on our Instagram and LinkedIn pages.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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