How growing plants helps you live longer and feel better
In between bouts in the garden that make me feel better about everything, I’ve been reading Sue Stuart-Smith’s book The Well-Gardened Mind, which is about why gardening makes you feel better about everything. Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and psychotherapist who happens to be married to one of the most exciting garden designers of his generation, Tom Stuart-Smith. Their Barn Garden, in Hertfordshire, has been on my must-see list for a while now.
Stuart-Smith’s first-hand knowledge of the rewards and challenges of the garden sit alongside her interest in the history of psychology and psychiatry and her experience as a therapist, to give her a unique take on the connections between wellbeing and hands-on involvement in the natural world.
The book delves into contemporary research on gardening’s impact on psychological wellbeing. It’s inspiring stuff: prisoners given a chance to garden during their sentence are less likely to reoffend; young people at risk of going off the rails stay in school longer when they have a chance to grow plants; older people live longer and more satisfying lives if they garden. Gardening helps people deal with childhood abuse as well as the traumas of war, loss and mental illness.
Stuart-Smith positions the new research within the context of psychological theory and the lived experience of people whose lives have been changed by the garden. People like Martin, serving time at the notorious Rikers Island in New York, who told her about working in the garden: “Here you speak a different language. Inside it’s all negativity, commotion and violence. But here you can find yourself again.”
Of course, it’s not just those who have been severely traumatised who find peace and connection when they garden. Modern life seems designed to generate anxiety, but reconnecting with the natural world and its timescales eases the pressure. One of the experts Stuart-Smith talks to is neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, who believes that physically shaping our surroundings connects us to the world and produces an increased sense of control, resilience and optimism. Lambert’s work leads her to believe that working with our hands is vital to mental health – a large part of the human brain is dedicated specifically to the movement of our hands – and that gardening is a particularly beneficial handiwork because it is unpredictable, offering a “contingency workout”.
Stuart-Smith wrote the book before COVID-19 uprooted “normal” life. The effects of the pandemic make the book even more relevant and add urgency to her call for a greening of modern life. She argues for green space requirements in new housing developments, for the valuing of our parks as islands of essential nature rather than vacant space, for the development of community gardens everywhere, and for encouragement for individual gardeners to stay immersed and connected to the natural world through nurturing their gardens.