THE 19TH-CENTURY POET Minnie Aumonier once wrote, “When the world wearies and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.” Turns out this slightly treacly sentiment, found on countless garden mugs and Pinterest boards, is rooted in a deeper truth, one that Sue Stuart-Smith, U.K.-based psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher and gardener, explores in her 2020 book, “The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature.”
The book, a meaty volume combining personal interviews and social science studies, reveals how connecting with nature nourishes and grounds us, instilling a sense of shelter and safety even if (when) the world around us is fraught. Stuart-Smith begins with a look at tending and examines how the process of gardening, even the tedious routine and weedy bits, helps to restore our physical, emotional and even spiritual equilibrium. “A long session in the garden can leave you feeling dead on your feet but strangely renewed inside — as if you have worked on yourself in the process,” she writes.
Chapter two, “Seeds and Self-belief,” contrasts the implicit faith of sowing seeds in expectation of a harvest and the “creative power of illusion,” the heady role we assume, subservient as it might be, in accomplishing a moment of beauty in a garden. The author observes, “Shaping a bit of reality is empowering but, crucially in the garden, we are never completely in control.”
In a chapter entitled “Radical Solutions” (Stuart-Smith notes that the word radical is derived from the plant world, referring to roots), the author profiles a variety of community organizers from all over the world who are nourishing their neighbors by planning, planting and caring for small plots of free food — a plot of rosemary, sage and thyme outside a butcher’s shop; apothecary beds filled with lavender, echinacea, chamomile and other supportive herbs planted around a health center; or an urban streetside planting filled with healthy produce. It sounds so obvious and practical as well as perfectly delightful.
Hectic schedules and crowded conditions leave us mentally and emotionally depleted — to say nothing of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. It’s a lot. Chronic stress leads to burnout, which increases the risk of depression and contributes to other physical disorders.
In a discussion on caring for our “emotional landscape,” specifically loss and mourning, Stuart-Smith writes, “The cycle of life [in a garden] can help us, because in the depths of winter, a belief in the return of spring gives us something to hold on to.”
I keep returning to a chapter, heavily marked with highlighter yellow, entitled “Garden Time.” “The garden is a place that brings us back to the basic biological rhythms of life,” Stuart-Smith asserts. Not only are we forced to slow down to the “pace of plants,” but thanks to the promise of another growing season, we always get another chance. Or, as Stuart-Smith eloquently states, “The structure of seasonal time has consolations.”
In the recent course of these oh-so-very strange years, a growing tide of new gardeners yearning to get their hands in the dirt and develop a relationship with plants has resulted in a skyrocketing interest in houseplants and booming nursery sales. It’s a beautiful circularity: Tending gardens is good for us, which in turn helps us care for one another.