Sue Stuart Smith
'The Well Gardened Mind' is a new book by psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith that explores the effects of gardening and nature on health and wellbeing. It's won plaudits from the likes of Stephen Fry who's described it as 'The wisest book I've read for many years.' Growth Point spoke to Sue about her work.

What are the main points you have learnt about the role of gardens / gardening for human wellbeing as a result of researching and writing this book?

Sue: 'The therapeutic power of gardens and gardening derives from the many levels on which they influence us both consciously and unconsciously. Proximity to green nature has been shown to alleviate anxiety, improve mood and revitalise cognitive functioning, as well as reducing blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The sense of achievement that arises through working with nature’s creativity is empowering and leads to an increased self-esteem. In addition, working with the cycle of life can be helpful following the experiences of trauma and/or loss. Gardening can be a mindful activity that brings us into the present moment but it is also always orientated towards the future. Both of these effects are helpful in counteracting depression and anxiety.'

Coronavirus dominates our lives now - are there any insights you can give us from the book about how gardens / gardening have helped in times of previous national crises?

Sue: 'Nature’s powers of regeneration are deeply sustaining to us in times of crisis. During the First World War, soldiers in the trenches created gardens using seeds sent from home. This phenomenon has also been observed following 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 a love of nature when we are exposed to extreme situations.'

I started researching the book with a belief in the power of gardening to transform lives but over time I became even more inspired by the subject. Hearing people’s testimonies was a deeply affirmative experience.

Sue Stuart-Smith

Do you think the timing of publication coinciding with our current lockdown status has created more interest in gardening? Is gardening providing you with greater resilience to cope with lockdown?

Sue: 'Many people report experiencing an almost instinctive urge to get their hands in the earth and propagate plants in response to the current crisis. So there has undoubtedly been a surge of people gardening. At the same time, this crisis has been much harder for people who don’t have access to a garden or a neighbourhood park. I feel incredibly fortunate to have our garden to turn to. This spring has been very beautiful and everything is so green at the moment. I always emerge from the garden feeling calmer and the earthiness of gardening is a great antidote to looking at a screen which most of us are doing more than ever at the moment. I love sowing seeds - it is a wonderful reminder of the mystery of life.'

Well Gardened Mind cover

How did the work of Thrive inform the book? What do you make of the value of social and therapeutic horticulture for enhancing people's lives?

Sue: 'The staff at Thrive were very helpful to me from the outset and I visited Thrive’s projects early on in my research. The book includes stories of people whose lives have been transformed through horticulture and some of them were attending Thrive projects. I started researching the book with a belief in the power of gardening to transform lives but over time I became even more inspired by the subject. Hearing people’s testimonies was a deeply affirmative experience. I lost count of how many times people who had benefited described it as a life-saving experience.'

There's been a lot of coverage of the book - has the extent of this been a surprise and what have been the most common themes in people's reactions to it?

Sue: 'I’ve had some fantastic feedback which has been wonderful. The book weaves together a number of different ingredients that are drawn from literature, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience as well as real-life stories. Many people have commented on how accessible and informative the book is. Also that the book has had a calming effect on them in these difficult times as well as bringing a sense of hope. If the book opens people’s minds to the potential power of social and therapeutic horticulture, I will be very happy.'

Celebrating 30 years of caring for people and plants

Sipping a cup of tea, Martin reflects on his experience being immersed in gardening and landscape work: ‘This opportunity has been like a breath of fresh air.'

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