Sue Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist with 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 Ms. Stuart-Smith, as evidenced in her recent book, The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, a garden is more than just a much-loved physical space. It’s also a mental space, one that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re weeding, sowing, pruning or clipping, gardening helps free the mind to work through feelings and problems. By tending our plants, we are tending ourselves.
An Opportunity to Reconnect with Ourselves
The poet William Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey said that to walk through a garden is to be “in the midst of the realities of things.” It is 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.
Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, would agree. He believed that modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. Jung grew his own vegetables and argued that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again.”
We all have to cope with the unremitting pace of modern urban living, with its smart technology and instant feedback. Not only can it be distracting and mind-numbing, it also leads to a disconnect from nature.
Ms. 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.
Get the Dirt on Dirt
It’s interesting to point out that as well as the serotonin boost that we get from being outside and the exercise that tending a garden provides, the neuroscientist Christopher Lowry discovered that a bacterium found in soil can boost serotonin levels in the brain.
Apparently, this ‘friendly bacteria” found in dirt works in a similar way to antidepressants! Lowry’s quoted as saying “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.”
And let’s not forget the Incredible Edible initiative, founded by Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear in Todmorden, U.K., “a radical experiment in urban foraging” that has created more than 70 food-growing plots throughout the United Kingdom.
It’s a testament to the fact that gardening brings together the emotional, physical, social, vocational and
spiritual aspects of life, boosting people’s mood and self-esteem.
Ms. Stuart-Smith agrees passionately with the ending to Voltaire’s Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” – we must cultivate our own garden.
For, as she says:
In this era of virtual worlds and fake facts, the garden brings us back to reality.
We couldn’t agree more.