The Well-Gardened Mind: A Psychiatrist’s View on the Healing Power of Nature
We dig in with author Sue Stuart-Smith.
Nature can and does heal us—and gardening is quite powerful and nurturing. As author of the Sunday Times bestseller The Well-Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith unearths: When we sow the soil, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves—quite literally reaping what we sow. Here, the distinguished psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and avid gardener shares her wisdom on the healing power of gardening—from the link between gardening and spirituality to its impact on mental health and more.
Early in your book, you discuss how you used to think of gardening as a form of outdoor housework. Can you explain your change of heart for readers who might think as you did?
In my mid-20s, I married Tom Stuart-Smith, the garden designer, and we began creating a garden together around our home in Hertfordshire, [England]. I was new to gardening at that stage, and, although I loved beautiful flowers, I regarded tasks like weeding as a chore.
That changed a few years later when I started growing herbs in a little plot we created for me to experiment in. I particularly loved growing things from seed and still do. Sowing seeds is a wonderful reminder of the mystery of life. I began to realize that the earthiness of gardening and the slow time of plants were great antidotes to the pressures of my working life.
What sort of long-term impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our relationship to the practice of growing our own food?
In response to the crisis, many people reported experiencing an almost instinctive urge to sow seeds and get their hands in the Earth. This phenomenon has been observed following many different forms of natural disasters and in the aftermath of wars.
It's been called “urgent biophilia ” to reflect the pressing need we can experience to reconnect with nature when we are exposed to extreme situations. Growing your own vegetables, fruit, and flowers is sustaining from a nutritional and emotional point view. I hope the pandemic will lead to community gardening being seen as a priority for mental health.
Your book details the historical link between gardening and spirituality. Do you consider gardening a spiritual practice? Please explain.
Like most things in life, gardening is not so much about what you do, but how you do it. For some people, gardening is a way of dominating or controlling nature, rather than entering into a relationship of connection and care. It is the latter that is therapeutic to us.
The mindful aspects of gardening can certainly be part of spiritual practice. A garden is much more than a physical space, it is also a mental space—being immersed in nature gives you quiet so you can hear your own thoughts, and, through working with your hands, you can free the mind to work through feelings and problems. I think deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden. For example, many people report that gardening has helped them work through grief and loss.
What are some of the most important things gardening has taught you about human nature?
When you work with nature, you are part of something much larger than yourself, and we often overlook our need to feel that. Working with nature, you’re immediately empowered—you’re being creative, and that can have a profound effect on us all.
The joy of creating helps us feel more alive, but it’s not available to everyone. Gardening is an accessible form of creativity, and it also gives people a sense of a future, which can be invaluable when they feel they have lost it.
In the course of researching the book, I interviewed people from mental health gardening projects—prisoners, veterans, and at-risk youth, as well as people suffering from depression, anxiety and addiction. Hearing their testimonies made be realize how much people can change their lives when they experience these kinds of affirmations.
Can you offer some advice to novice gardeners—including people who are growing food in urban areas?
Whatever size or kind of garden you have, the important thing is to take time to enjoy its loveliness and connect with the beauty of nature within it. If you seek perfection or too much tidiness, you can end up falling into the trap of always ‘doing’—rather than simply ‘being’—in relation to the garden and all the different life forms that thrive within it.
How can people best use the food they grow to benefit their communities?
Each community is different and will have varying resources and levels of need but generally community gardening has been shown to connect people and help counteract loneliness and isolation. The Incredible Edible model which started in Todmorden in the north of England and has become a world-wide movement is a good example of this. It involves growing food on public land and disused space and making it freely available for people living in the town to pick. Once a fortnight volunteers come together and produce a meal from food they have grown. The project also supports gardening in local schools which connects young people with nature in a way that was not happening before. The civic landscape of Todmorden has been transformed by this project.
Is there anything else you want to convey to people reading this?
The pandemic is offering us an opportunity to reset our relationship with nature. Lockdown was hugely stressful and challenging for people without access to outdoor space and this exposed the enormous difference to quality of life that derives from having a garden or access to a park . It would be good if this crisis leads to stronger recognition that we need our connection to nature in order to thrive and that everyone should have access to some form of green space.