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The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering nature in the modern world, by Sue Stuart-Smith

17 July 2020

Pat Ashworth reads of a power to restore

MONTHS of confinement in a time of stress have been confirmation, if any were needed, of the restorative power of a garden. Sue Stuart-Smith uses her clinical knowledge and experience as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist to examine what it is that makes gardening so transformative, and why it is so crucial to mental health and the environment that we live in.

It is one of those beautiful books that opens so many windows in your mind that you feel not just better informed but wiser for reading it. She explores the deep existential processes involved in creating and caring for a garden: “protected space that allows our inner world and the outer world to coexist free from the pressures of everyday life”; “a way of grappling with our place in the world and helping us feel we have some grip on life”; “a place to buffer us when the going gets tough”.

The natural cycles of growth and decay, disappearance and return, she believes, can help people to understand and accept that mourning is part of the cycle of life. The science is fascinating, as she probes the idea that we can cultivate the soul or self like a garden. This is something that goes back to ancient times, and is beginning to be applied to the brain in contemporary science. New imaging techniques show that a constant process of being weeded, pruned, and fertilised is shown to keep the brain healthy at cellular level.

Equally riveting is the history: the Benedictines, who lifted gardening from the realm of penitential toil; Hildegarde of Bingen, who recognised that people could thrive only where the natural world thrived; reformers such as the physician William Tuke, who campaigned for gardens in asylums; Freud, whose love of flowers helped him to prepare for death; and Wordsworth and his sister, whose garden helped them to recover an inner sense of home.

Case studies, legends, anecdotes, and personal history all contribute to this powerful book. I never knew that Sheffield cutlers were renowned for their horticultural skills and grew auriculas in their cramped backyards; that coalminers cultivated pansies; or that there were many gardens on the Western Front.

Gardening has a new impetus in an age in which levels of depression and anxiety have increased and drug costs are rising, the author suggests, concluding: “More than ever, we need to remind ourselves that, first and foremost, we are creatures of the earth.”


The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering nature in the modern world
Sue Stuart-Smith
William Collins £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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