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Minding the Garden

‘I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden. So I find myself asking, How does the garden have its effects on us? How can it help us find or re-find our place in the world when we feel we have lost it?’ It is these questions, posed by psychiatrist, psychotherapist and gardener Sue Stuart-Smith that form the premise of her 2020 book, The Well Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature.

Stuart-Smith weaves psychoanalysis, neuroscience and anecdote to craft a compelling overview of the power of gardening. Framing the brain as a garden to be tended not a machine to be fixed; exploring the evolutionary connections between people and plants; highlighting the healing capacity of plants and gardening; and meandering between Wordsworth and Candide’s Voltaire, The Well Gardened Mind comes closer to articulating the why of gardening than any other book I’ve read.

Sue Stuart-Smith. Photo: Russell Sach

Georgina Reid: Personally, your book has been really influential – bringing together so many things I’ve been thinking about, and feeling, for so long. I needed someone like you with your knowledge and insight to put it together for me.

Sue Stuart-Smith: It’s wonderful to hear that. I worked on the book for five years. You think about things quietly in your own way, and then you put it out in the world and at some level you’re not quite sure if it’s going to make sense to anybody else.

GR: The timing of it was brilliant. Thanks to COVID-19, suddenly we’re all gardening! Were you surprised that it has done so well and resonated so strongly?

SS: Well, of course. I think what was very strange at the beginning of COVID was seeing the phenomenon of urgent biophilia that happened. It’s been observed during wars, following wars, natural disasters and so on. Turning to nature at times of dire crisis. But never for a moment could I have anticipated that the book would actually come out in the middle of a global crisis.

At a personal level, I felt a deeper need for our garden. It was spring here, seed sowing time. The plants that were germinating had added significance. And particularly, at the beginning, when we were so anxious about the virus itself, not really understanding it; I think the healthiness of new growth in the plants was so stabilising and reassuring. It was part of life that wasn’t changed.

GR: All of your thinking in the book was playing out in real life …

SS: Yes, absolutely. And actually the garden became a place where one could make plans, you could think two or three months ahead, what you were sowing or what you were planting out. But I was living through it too. I had written about these things a bit more from the outside, I’d had a lot of personal experience being helped through gardening, but not to that degree.

What has been wonderful is that people have been receptive to some of the messages in the book because they were actually feeling it. Over here, everyone was allowed an hour a day to go out and exercise in the parks if they lived in a city or a town. And I think that moment of being out among the trees and the greenery – it was a very beautiful spring last year – people really felt, at a visceral level, the lowering of their stress. Something has much more impact when people have had some kind of personal experience, doesn’t it?

GR: Absolutely. There’s such a difference between knowledge that is embodied, and knowledge of the mind. I’d like to speak about that in a bit, but first, one thing I’m curious about is the leap you took from studying English literature at Cambridge to studying medicine and psychiatry. Was there a particular experience that encouraged such a dramatic shift in focus?

SS: Yes, the final year of my English degree was when my father became very ill. He died that autumn. The year before that, I’d been in and out of hospitals visiting him. It awakened in me a desire to become a doctor, to do something that directly touched people’s lives. Up until then, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I’d done some bits of journalism while I was a student, but I felt that was more a position where you’re observing and writing about things, rather than doing.

So it was really a response, I think, to the loss of my father. But at the same time, I knew I was most interested in the mind. In a way, it was still carrying something over from my love of English literature because I studied Freud as part of my English degree. Psychiatry, for me, was where the two interests combined. And, once I was practising as a psychiatrist, I knew I was more interested in the talking therapy side of the treatment.

GR: You write that when your father died, your mum turned to the garden. It reminded me of when my grandmother died and all of a sudden I turned into a maniac – I had a timber table that needed restoring and I worked on it like a madwoman for days. It’s like I put my grief into it. Something I didn’t realise until reading your book, but which makes perfect sense, is the vital relationship between hands and minds.

SS: I think you have to understand firstly how we evolved as a species and how crucial hands are, not only to shaping and manipulating the environment around us, but also to emotional expression in gesture and body language. The hands are, after the face, the most expressive part of our body. If we’re dealing with overwhelming emotions, working with our hands can be a very important way of beginning to process them before we can even put them into words.

The hand/brain/emotion connection is very important. And, of course, it doesn’t only apply to gardening, it can be woodworking, pottery, cooking. I think the work of Kelly Lambert, who I quote in the book, is very interesting. Her theory is that engagement with material reality, via our hands, gives us greater resilience in times of stress. I think that connection with the material world and producing something tangible is ever more important.

The fact that I can talk to you so intimately and yet you’re on the other side of the world – the wonders of technology are extraordinary. But it is very disembodied. Some people, their working lives are now entirely on a screen. I think we need to recognise the importance of balancing that with something that’s working with our brains in a different way.

GR: Absolutely. Embodied knowledge – pursuits like gardening, making, cooking are often not seen as valuable within our society, and yet they’re so important. I heard that when you spoke to your psychiatry colleagues when you first started writing the book, they sort of pitied you, because ‘Oh, gardening! She’s going batty!’

SS: It was like I was a bit off-piste, going down a sort of side street, somewhere not very interesting. And not perhaps very relevant either. But you know, that really changed by the time I was finishing the book. It’s been fascinating, actually, seeing that evolution, and of course now it’s changed hugely with the pandemic.

GR: I’ve certainly noticed a difference in the perception of gardening. So much of what you write about in the book relates, in a way, to a deeper kind of knowing that gardeners have. I was doing a project with an organisation here in Australia around gardening, plants and wellbeing. I was at a big wholesale nursery talking to a grower, explaining the project to him. And he said, ‘What? All plant people know that plants are good for you, why do you need science to tell you this?’ What I’m trying to get to is that all gardeners know, on a very intuitive level, about the importance of gardens and gardening, but it seems to have taken a very long time for the rest of the world to get in on the knowledge. I wonder why.

SS: Well, I think two things about that. I think it’s symptomatic of how disconnected from nature we’ve become culturally and collectively. But I think even some people who do feel a strong connection with nature and get out a lot and hike a lot in wild nature hugely underestimate the potential of the garden – in a way maybe seeing it as nature that’s overly domesticated or tamed.

What some people seek, I think, is nature untouched by humans. Those experiences have their own value, but they’re very different from what a garden offers. I think that sense of the mediated space where we work out our relationship with nature, within the cycle of life, is something that’s easy to miss. It’s easy to see gardening as a nice hobby rather than a deep and meaningful relationship.

GR: Absolutely.

SS: Freud’s thinking made a huge impression on me in my early days as a student and psychiatrist. But I didn’t realise, until I came to research the book, what a great nature lover he was. And then also, how important the garden became to him when he couldn’t travel.

In a garden there’s always something changing, even within the same day. And there is so much other life that comes into a garden. So, actually, it’s a place where the more you look, the more you see. And the more time you spend in it, the more richness you experience from it. For those people who are fortunate enough to have a garden, I think many of them have had those kinds of experiences during the pandemic. They’ve not been able to get into wild nature, but they’ve realised that in their own backyard, they have got something they can turn to.

I had one friend in London who said to me, ‘I always thought of my garden as very small.’ The paradox was that spending so much time in it and gardening more, she said, ‘Now it feels so big because there’s so much going on in it.’ It’s interesting, that shift. It’s about what happens when we look closely and experience what’s nearest to us.

GR: Something I was thinking about when you were talking about the perceived difference in valuing wild nature and the garden is the kind of attention that’s been offered to literary forms like nature writing whereas garden writing has predominately been relegated to the practical and instructional. I wonder if the narratives around the value of gardening or the importance of gardening haven’t necessarily been there to embed the garden in the collective consciousness in a way that makes us see it beyond just the physical, but also even metaphorical, spiritual.

SS: I completely agree. I embarked on this journey in 2013, when [my husband] Tom and I hosted the 2013 Garden Museum Literary Festival in our garden. At a very early planning meeting, Christopher Woodward, the Garden Museum director, turned to me out of the blue and said, ‘Sue, I think you should talk about gardening for the mind.’ And I thought, ‘Yes, I suppose I can do that,’ but I was still a bit taken aback. It was in researching and writing that talk that I realised how much had not been articulated about gardening and how much I wanted to do that.

And I think one has to acknowledge that gardening can be very difficult to put into words because it is an entirely non-verbal activity. As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, a lot of that work you do with a patient or client is about bringing things into consciousness that have been unconscious, helping find words for them. That’s what I wanted to do through writing the book. And that’s how I saw the book, a real extension of my therapeutic work.

I realised when I was writing that talk that I had been putting things together in my mind around attachment and even possibly transitional space, but not really fully developing them; noticing the impact of gardening on myself, but never sitting down and writing about it.

GR: Were you surprised by what appeared and what you discovered, or was it stuff that made sense to you?

SS: I think it really helped me structure my thinking about how gardens and gardening can be so transformative for people. For example, the interviews I did on Rikers Island – [where people] had become despairing … caught in a cycle of reoffending and coming back to jail often for relatively minor offences. Gardening was the first experience they’d had of being able to look at something that they felt, ‘Oh, my goodness, I played a part in that, I’ve done something worthwhile, I could do something different with my life.’ And I was very struck by the power of that in that context, in that situation.

I knew that one of the things I valued personally about gardening was that sense of real pleasure and achievement you get from harvesting the food, bringing it in to the kitchen and then cooking with it. You know you’ve done something really nourishing for everybody or you’ve produced something that’s really nourishing. In the right context, I do think one has to always acknowledge how crucial horticultural therapists are to the successful therapeutic gardening projects; the way the projects are run and giving people the right level of help. But when it goes well, most of it comes from the direct engagement, getting your hands in the soil and nurturing plants.

GR: The places beyond words again.

SS: Yes, yes.

GR: You’ve really made me realise that value of not having to have language to frame things. You write that in the garden there’s no judgment and no pressure to be anything or to be anyone, and for me this is a wonderful thing, but I imagine it must be so important for people who have troubled interpersonal relationships.

SS: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a very important effect and I was fascinated by that. I think we underestimate how much we sometimes need a break from interpersonal relating and 21st century life with its hyperconnectivity in all its different forms with social media, people liking or not liking and so on. That sense of always trying to anticipate, I suppose, what are other people thinking of me at a basic level – I think for the prisoners I interviewed, it was such a relief to be able to enter into a nurturing relationship where they didn’t have those complexities. In everyday life otherwise, they were feeling very easily judged and feelings of shame were very easily triggered. I think it’s also something that everyone can benefit from, because in the garden you’re working with plants, you’re still connected to life but the plants, as Freud said, don’t have conflicts or emotions.

It may be a sort of refuge, a garden, I think. But it seems that when we have that respite, we can then return to the world of human relating feeling refreshed. For people who are really struggling with being in groups and so on, maybe following a breakdown or a trauma or a loss, spending some time working in the safety of a garden and in solitude, particularly on a therapeutic project, very often what happens is that after time, they then find their way back to working with a group, it becomes a safe place to do that. But first of all, needing that solitude, just connecting with nature.

Inmates working in the Rikers Island jail garden, New York. Photo: Lindsay Morris

GR: I’d like to talk about destruction now, because it is, as you suggest, a kind of therapy as well.

SS: Absolutely, yes. I call it destructiveness in the service of growth. We were talking earlier about hands, and how releasing negative feelings, such as anger or tension or distress, through physical expression can be enormously helpful. Actually, I feel a garden is a way where you can be destructive, but it’s creative at the same time – ripping up weeds or pruning or cutting back – and I think that’s quite unusual.

GR: I feel much better about being brutal in the garden now!

SS: If you don’t prune your fruit trees, they’re not going to thrive, are they? So yeah, absolutely.

But there was something that I just wanted to also add to what I was saying just now about how the sort of refuge of a garden and working with plants can also ultimately kind of foster human connection. You asked earlier about was there anything that was surprising in terms of the research and that was … Well, in terms of the science, anyway, because as you say, a lot of the science shows us what many gardeners, all gardeners have known in their bones forever if you like.

But studies have found that the presence of plants, and that can be indoor plants too, helps shift people towards increased sense of empathy with others, and towards being more likely to offer a generous response to another person. It’s called the pro-social effects of nature. I think this is really fascinating and important. And I feel it could be one crucial way in which gardens, urban gardens and community gardens, particularly, could contribute to the transition period that we’re going to have to negotiate coming out of the pandemic, with the very high levels of loneliness and social isolation that people have endured.

GR: I think so too. It’ll be interesting to see what happens there. You talk about gardens as in-between spaces, not just physical but metaphorical as well, and the psychological importance of these kinds of spaces. I wonder if you could explain that a little bit.

SS: I draw on Donald Winnicott’s notion of transitional space in doing that. For Winnicott, the transitional space is a notional space. It is the emotional, interactive space between baby and mother and then, as the child grows and begins to play, it’s the imaginative space in which the child plays. And then as life goes on, it’s transitionality is about creativity. It’s the space where the real and the imagined can come together. I think gardens absolutely foster that. I think the sense of safe enclosure people have in the garden allows them to go into that way of being.

It’s a place where you’re less likely to be interrupted, you’ve got some privacy and you can get into a rhythm with the world. And lose yourself. Lots of people talk about that sense of losing themselves in the garden. And that’s so crucial for mental health, it’s very replenishing to have those times.

Gardening is in-between because, on the one hand, we’re absolutely the hands in the earth and engaged with the real physicality of life and the soil and the smell of it, the physicality of everything. And at the same time, we’re somehow free to wander through our minds. And maybe dreaming at some level, what we’re trying to create, that little bit of paradise we’re maybe dreaming of, this special space that we’re working on because it’s such a personal project for most people, a garden. And it can be such a deep and meaningful sort of creation, can’t it?

Gardening connects those twin poles – it can be a way of connecting the physicality of life as well as the whole realm of the mind really. I think that is very important. There are different ways of expressing it, aren’t there? I mean, the in-between space it captures it very well.

GR: Everyone lives with loss in some way or another and, as you’ve said, grief is not something you can take a tablet for. Something that struck me when you were talking about that, you mentioned that one of the things that’s lost in times of existential crisis is the future, our ability to imagine a future or want to imagine a future. I’ve never thought about that before. I wonder if you can speak a little about that?

SS: I think that aspect of gardening has been hugely, hugely important during the pandemic. The time scale of a garden, I think, gives you a very manageable form of the future.

We are a forward-looking species, and a sense of positive anticipation is fundamental to having a sense of motivation or purpose in life. It’s bound up with our dopamine system. Dopamine is energising and it lifts us a bit in a sense of having something to look forward to. It’s really important for mental health. And there’s a lot of focus at the moment on mindfulness and being in the present moment which, of course, an immersion in gardening certainly gives you, it gives you a very physical tactile way of entering into a kind of mindful state, a kind of meditative state. And that’s also very important. But I think equally important is the future orientation that gardening has, that it’s a forward looking activity and I think that’s very, very important actually in terms of how it can help people when they feel their life is for whatever reason stalled or they’re in a rut or they’re caught up in ruminating about the past. It’s an accessible route out of that, I think.

GR: I think so too. The other thing you speak about that really resonated with me was this idea that time is cyclical, not linear. Obviously looking forward but also being guided or shadowed or whatever by present, past and future. From my perspective, I thought that is such a relief to feel like I’m not going on this single track, you know what I mean? So for me, I thought that was amazing.

SS: I think psychological time isn’t linear – we anticipate the future by looking back to the past, drawing on past experience, so there’s a constant sense of creating a loop. The man-made invention of linear time helps us get things done – we have deadlines – but there’s something intrinsically wrong with it, it can be a very hard taskmaster, can’t it?

For me, certainly one of the great things about the garden is feeling each year things are slightly different, some things work better than last year, some things don’t work, but there’s just always that sense of, you know, I’ll have another go next year. And I find that very helpful and the cyclicity of life, of time.

And you mentioned grief earlier and I think at a very fundamental level that sense of loss is part of life, the cycle has to turn, has to come full circle, I think the garden can help us adapt to that, accommodate it.

It’s why I quote people like Stanley Kunitz, who found death and loss terrifying and sort of unacceptable. He couldn’t get his head round it as a young man and it was only through working on the land that he found a way to adjust himself to integrate it into his understanding of life.

GR: Also you write, which I think is a very, very important point, if there was no loss in the world we would lack the creation to create. Again, two sides of the same coin, I guess. Now, one more question: Where to from here?

SS: Because of the pandemic, the book has kept me very, very busy. I feel it’s a window of opportunity to communicate some of these really important messages. And to think about how we address the much larger crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss. Gardening can really contribute to that. And I think also help people who are struggling with eco anxiety, environmental melancholia, struggling with a sense of doom … Doom about what humans have inflicted on the planet – some of it is irreversible – that does have to be acknowledged, but people can end up feeling that nature’s already lost to us…..

I’ve been doing some interviews with young people around land-based projects and I have been very struck by their discovery that ‘Oh, nature does respond. If I work with nature there is something I can do,’ particularly around biodiversity and supporting wildlife in the garden. And I think that’s another important aspect for young people growing up in this world of planetary crisis, that actually engaging with nature through the garden can be a very positive experience.

Gardening can be empowering for people who want to change their lives but can’t see how and, in the same way, gardening can be empowering for people who want to contribute, who are asking ‘What can we do and how can we come together collectively?’ I think gardening can provide some of the impetus for that.