The Well Gardened Mind

“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 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.

Garden as Healer

“Plants are so much less frightening and challenging than people that a garden may be a more accessible way of reconnecting with life-giving impulses … In a garden the level of background noise falls away and you can escape from other people’s thoughts and judgements about you, so that within a garden there is, perhaps, more freedom to feel good about yourself. This relief from the interpersonal realm can, paradoxically, be a way of reconnecting with our humanity.”

Stuart-Smith tells of a 2018 study where patients diagnosed with stress disorders were assigned to two groups. One received a ten week course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and the other were assigned to a gardening program of the same length. “Ten weeks of gardening a few hours a week is not that much, but even for this brief period horticulture provided a similar level of benefit as the evidence-based CBT program’.

The study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2018 – the first horticultural therapy trial ever included in the publication.

Garden as Revelation

“… gardens have a powerful leveling effect; they offer an environment in which social pecking orders and racial divides become much less relevant… Working with the earth seems to foster an authentic connection between people, free from the posturing and prejudice that characterizes so much human-to-human relating.”

Each year, 400 inmates of Rikers Island – one of the largest penal colonies in the world – take part in a horticultural therapy program called GreenHouse, run by the Horticultural Society of New York (also known as the Hort). The program has been in existence since 1986 and each year produces over 18,000 pounds of produce shared between prisoners and staff.

Repeat offending in those who leave Rikers is high, according to Stuart-Smith. “More than 65% of ex-prisoners are back inside within three years of release, but the re-offending rate for those who attend the Hort’s program is only 10-15%.”

Garden as Compass

“All the time, in all sorts of ways, we are investing in an unknown future, but when events conspire and life feels out of control it is hard to dare to dream. The garden is a safe place to begin, and it gives you structure and discipline too – it is not about unboundaried possibilities. There is no negotiating with the march of the seasons of the pace of the natural growth force… You have to submit to the rhythm of garden time and you have to work within that frame.”

Sue Stuart-Smith. Photograph by Harry Stuart-Smith

Time is a concept, and these days we see it as linear. But the earliest human understanding of time was, according to Stuart-Smith, cyclical. This doesn’t relate only to the seasons, but also to the stories we told. Consider the archetypal hero’s journey – the hero leaves home on a quest, overcomes many challenges and returns home transformed. “This circular narrative structure lies deep in our psychological ancestry,” she suggests.

Our brains are wired for cyclical time – “We make endless returns to the past in order to make sense of the present and anticipate the future”. This allows us space to “rest and digest”, both physically and mentally. “If we lack time and mental space for this, experience feels more like one disparate or unconnected event after another. Life starts to lack meaning.”

The garden connects us to biological time and offers, too, a cyclical narrative. “The seasons come around again, and we have a sense of return; some things are altered, some things are the same. The structure of seasonal time has consolations. Kinder to the psyche, it lets you learn, because you get second chances.”

This concept of cyclical time feels particularly resonant to me, right now. It’s easy to imagine that we’re marching along a path towards a future easy to be scared of. But if we’re walking slowly in circles, there’s more space to see opportunity and pattern, and more time to imagine new possibilities.

Gardening as Cultivation of Self and World

“In this era of virtual worlds and fake facts, the garden brings us back to reality; not the kind of reality that is known and predictable, for the garden always surprises us and in it we can experience a different kind of knowing, one that is sensory and physical and which stimulates the emotional, spiritual, and cognitive aspects of our being. Gardening is, in this sense, simultaneously ancient and modern. Ancient, because of the evolutionary fit between brain and nature … that expresses our deeply inscribed need to attach to place. Modern because the garden is intrinsically forward-looking and the gardener is always aiming for a better future.”

“Cultivation works both ways – it is inward as well as outward – and tending a garden can be an attitude towards life … gardening puts us in a direct relationship with the reality of how life is generated and sustained and how fragile and fleeting it can be. Now, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves that first and foremost, we are creatures of the earth.”

The Well Gardened Mind is an insightful, affirming and inspiring book that deserves a space on every gardener’s bookshelf. I’ve been reading it with my morning coffee and before I know it, it’s 6:47am and I’m tinkering in the garden. It offers both validation and wisdom – making clear the often hard-to-articulate reasons for, and benefits of, gardening.

Thanks to Sue Stuart-Smith, I can now say with absolute authority that gardening IS medicine.