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May 19, 2020

Dig for mental health

Mental health services are reporting unprecedented numbers of people with no history of mental illness presenting with serious psychological problems as a result of the lockdown. Of course there are multiple contributing factors that lie behind this but one factor appears to be the restrictions on movement and access to the outdoors. Most people don’t own a garden, and even fewer have access to an allotment or community growing space. There is however significant evidence that gardening of any sort can be hugely therapeutic. In her book, The Well Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith describes the process.

PD Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, has a unique view of gardening: “I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.” For her, a garden – such as her own at Serge Hill, Hertfordshire – is far more than just a much loved physical space. It is also a mental space, one that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts”. When you work with your hands in the garden, weeding or clipping, you free your mind to work through feelings and problems. By tending your plants, you are also gardening your inner space and, over time, a garden is woven into your sense of identity, becoming a place to “buffer us when the going gets tough”.

It was Wordsworth who said that to walk through a garden is to be “in the midst of the realities of things”, to be immersed in the primal awareness not just of nature’s beauty, but the eternal cycle of the seasons, of life, death and rebirth. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. He grew his own vegetables and argued that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again”.

The fast and unremitting pace of modern urban living, with its smart technology and instant feedback leads to a “devaluing of the slower rhythms of natural time”. We have become disconnected from nature: “the pace of life is the pace of plants”. Informed by literature as well as psychoanalysis, Stuart-Smith’s beautifully written book is filled with insights into the joys of gardening, but also the remarkable therapeutic benefits that tending plants can offer, not just to people who feel they have lost their place in nature, but to everyone: “As we cultivate the earth, we cultivate an attitude of care towards the world.” She argues for a greening of our lives – bringing green spaces back into housing developments and encouraging community gardening schemes, such as Incredible Edible, founded by Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear in Todmorden, in Calderdale, “a radical experiment in urban foraging” that has created more than 70 food-growing plots around the town.

This is a life-affirming study of the special pleasures of tending your garden and growing things, from planting the seed and watching it grow each day (“seeds have tomorrow ready-built into them”), to cropping home-grown vegetables and cooking delicious meals with them. Even the chores like weeding and watering have their unique joys: “watering is calming and strangely, when it is finished, you end up feeling refreshed, like the plants themselves.” Her heartfelt arguments for the benefits of nature and gardening for our mental health are informed by research in neuroscience and the evidence of patients who have improved through therapeutic gardening. It has been estimated that for every £1 spent by the NHS on gardening projects, £5 can be saved in reduced health costs. Gardening brings together the emotional, physical, social, vocational and spiritual aspects of life, boosting people’s mood and self-esteem.

Stuart-Smith agrees passionately with Voltaire’s conclusion to Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” – we must cultivate our gardens. For, as she says: “In this era of virtual worlds and fake facts, the garden brings us back to reality.”


  • The Well Gardened Mind is published by William Collins