The Well Gardened Mind – an interview with Sue Stuart-Smith

In the first in a series of articles about the people who inspire me, I spoke to psychiatrist, psychotherapist and Author Sue Stuart-Smith about her book The Well Gardened Mind and some of her thoughts on life after lockdown.

I became aware of The Well Gardened Mind in May last year when my father presented me with a copy out of the blue. He’d read an article about it in a newspaper and was so taken with it that he had immediately bought me the book. Mesmerised and intrigued, I read it in just a couple of days, and for a time it was the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night.

I have read a lot of literature on the wellbeing benefits of gardening, from academic papers when training in social and therapeutic horticulture to trending lifestyle articles online, but few summarise the benefits quite as well as this one. Stephen Fry described the book as the wisest book he’d read for many years, and it’s easy to understand why.

Sue said it took her five years to write the book. “It feels really amazing when you sit and work on something on your own and wonder if it makes sense. It involved such a lot of research.” The printed copy has been translated into 15 languages so far though, which is a great indicator of its success.

The book uses case studies of people struggling with stress, depression, trauma, and addiction, as well as her own grandfather’s return from the First World War, to explore the many ways that gardening can help to transform people’s lives.

Sue is keen to point out that the book is not a gardening manual or a practical self-help guide. “It’s not a ‘how to’ book,” she says. Instead, it offers insight and anecdote on the restorative power of gardening. At the beginning of the pandemic people told Sue that although they could not always concentrate enough to read, they were listening to the audio version while they gardened.

By letting us into some of the most intimate moments in her family’s history, The Well Gardened Mind takes us on a relatable journey. Sue describes how she was drawn to nature after her father’s death. “Grief is isolating, and it is no less so when it is a shared experience. A loss that devastates a family generates a need to lean on each other but at the same time everyone is in a state of collapse.”

As someone who has had several bereavements in recent years, this really resonated with me. I’ve experienced first-hand the comfort gardening can bring to someone who is grieving and there is a chapter devoted to this in the book.  “Whichever way you look at it”, Sue says, “gardening is such a transformative process because you’re working with growth, and that helps.”

A lot has changed since Sue researched and wrote her book. The World Health organisation declared a pandemic on 11th March 2020 and a series of restrictions and lockdowns followed. As a nation, we in the UK have experienced a kind of collective grief as things seemed to change almost overnight.

“Levels of anxiety and depression have risen hugely during the pandemic”, says Sue. “One thing that has been so difficult for all of us is the loss of all our social networks. I write in the book about the damaging effects of loneliness and isolation on health. There is a chapter called ‘Radical Solutions’ in which I talk about the importance of combatting loneliness. With one in four people suffering from feelings of isolation, loneliness has never been more prevalent than it is today.”

“Until recently, the adverse effects were thought to be mainly psychological but now it is thought to be a physical health issue as well. A lack of social connectedness is associated with 30 per cent greater risk of early death from all causes, an increase that is equivalent to being obese, or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day”.

Sue describes in the book that when you look back through history, whenever there has been a major crisis such as war or a natural disaster or a big financial crash, people turn back to the land. They want to reconnect. “The renewal that comes from nature is so important in sustaining people psychologically”, she says. “When you look at all the other crisis in this country in recent years, people were at least able to still hug and console each other. And social support is so important for our mental health. It’s no surprise that the mental health toll is so great. Parks, gardens and nature have really come into their own.”

I asked Sue about the importance of the ‘safe green spaces’ that she writes about in the book.

“People have had to be hypervigilant during the pandemic and it’s going to take us a long time to drop that. We’re all different of course with unique personalities. Some people will be able to bounce back straight away and for others it may take longer. But generally, it’s through the trauma of the pandemic that safe green spaces have been identified as being so important. Green spaces provide somewhere that still feels normal. While everything in the human world has been put on hold or is different and full of uncertainty – in terms of economics, businesses, and loss of people’s jobs – the calendar of the seasons hasn’t changed. It’s an aspect of life that gives us that reassuring feeling of something that’s not been touched by the crisis.”

I also asked what she thinks life will be like as things start to return to normal.

“We just don’t know, Sue says. “We can already see people getting a bit more polarised but there may also be a big life-affirming coming together. Both will go on. There is going to be economic fallout from this. If you think about what’s happening to our high streets with the closures of shops and people losing their jobs, community gardening projects could play a big role in bringing people together.”

Sue talks about this in the ‘Radical Solutions’ chapter – the idea of gardening being a social bridge. “Gardens are non-threatening environments in which people can come together. I hope that, given how many people have connected through nature during the pandemic, that we can take something from that. There’s been a bit of an awakening about the role of nature and how it can impact our health and stress levels. And it’s part of our roles as therapeutic gardening practitioners to keep that positive momentum going.”

I was curious to know if Sue felt that there would be more funding for community gardening projects now that mental health is back in the news.

“As a doctor, I certainly feel that the mental wellbeing of healthcare staff has now moved further up the agenda and it’s about time. People were struggling before then – they were burnt out.”

“One aspect of the social prescribing programme that is being rolled out is linking people to horticultural therapy projects but there is no extra funding for it. Will that funding come? We’ll have to wait and see. Charities have been hard hit by the pandemic and are having to raise more money to help the extra number of people. Many of the projects work with clinically vulnerable people and it’s been a challenge for staff to adapt sites to cater for them. Sowing seeds in a greenhouse, for example, just hasn’t been possible. Some of the projects have had to put their staff on furlough to survive because they are not able to fundraise in the same way.”

“Gardening will continue to play a very important role in the next few years in helping us all to recover. The forward aspect of gardening is helpful when everything feels so uncertain. People intuitively rushed to buy seeds at the start of the pandemic because the ritual of sowing them gave people more control. It made them feel that they could make something good happen. Gardening is empowering, I really believe that.”

I revealed that since taking up gardening I feel more able to bounce back after negative events. I asked Sue if resilience building was in her experience of gardening too.

“Yes. We can shape a bit of our world but we’re never entirely in control. Gardening empowers us but equally it helps us to be resilient. It’s a living relationship and that’s one of the things I really wanted to get across in the book. We’re not completely in control and that’s what hooks people into gardening, keeps us trying. You make an intervention in the garden and then you have to wait to see what happens. You have to notice, and you have to respond. That relationship has been very sustaining for people when relationships have otherwise been so changed by the situation we are in at the moment. And it’s putting a lot of strain on our closest relationships too. Being able to turn to the garden is tremendously helpful.”

Whatever your interest in horticulture or the human mind, Sue’s insights are a timely reminder of the powerful connections that exist between people and nature. And when we recognise those connections we can work with them to make improvements to our lives. 

I would urge everyone to read the book.                                                                             

The paperback version was released at the end of April 2021. Also available as an audio book.

Build your own bug hotel for National Gardening Week

I love reusing and recycling materials to create wellbeing gardens with my clients. There’s something really rewarding about rescuing something that would have been thrown away and turning it into something amazing.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showing you how to make some beautiful things for your own gardens, starting with this luxury bug hotel made from reclaimed pallets. Our three-story lodge includes a penthouse suite and pinecone, stick and sunflower themed rooms. We called our hotel the Travel Bug Lodge but you can choose your own name for yours.

Bug hotels are fun to build and provide shelter for the smallest critters in your garden. It’s a great project to do with kids to get them thinking about the importance of wildlife habitats which are increasingly under threat. 

What to do:

The key to creating a five-star hotel is to divide it into sections and fill each section with different materials. To attract a range of bugs, you’ll want some dark, damp sections and others that are drier and get more sunshine.

Choose a flat spot in your garden and stack the pallets on top of each other. If you want a smaller hotel then cut the pallets into smaller pieces. Check to make sure that any wood you use isn’t treated with nasty chemicals. Stuff the hotel with natural materials to give the bugs somewhere to hide.

You can get creative with what to use in your hotel but here are some good things to include:

Deadwood is an important habitat for beetles, woodlice and centipedes so include as much as you can. Use decaying bark and logs and drill holes into newer wood so the bugs can get in and out.

Bamboo canes and other hollow stems provide good nesting sites for solitary bees.

Dry flowers and leaves are fantastic cover for bugs. We included dried sunflowers in our design because we liked the idea of having themed rooms. You can use small terracotta pots turned on their side to hold the dry materials too.

Sticks and twigs. Pack these into spaces and use the biggest ones to divide your hotel up into rooms.

Pinecones. You’ll find lots of these laying about so go for a walk to collect them.

Straw is warm and cosy so you’ll have lots of happy bugs if you include some in your hotel.

Stones and bricks add structure and points of interest. Use the bricks to create layers between the pallets.

We made a felt roof for ours to keep it dry, but you could use old tiles or leave it without. If you want to give your hotel a name, then use a flat piece of wood and paint it to make a sign.

It won’t be long before new residents start moving in and enjoying the hotel!

Building raised beds

Chris and I had another fantastic session on the weekend. We built raised beds for his wellbeing garden and checked in on the sunflowers we sowed on my previous visit.

As well as continuing to improve his woodworking skills, Chris feels happy and confident. It encourages him to take ownership of a growing project from start to finish. What could be better than growing your own vegetables in a bed you made yourself? It’s a real mood booster.

Raised beds enable you to have a variety of soil types in your garden, as well as improve drainage and increase soil temperature. They are also great for people with mobility issues because you can raise the height of the beds so you won’t have to bend down as far. They look really nice too.

We’ll be building another raised bed in a future session and in the meantime we’ll be sowing more seeds and making a window box.

Why gardening is good for the soul

Yesterday’s Garden to Wellbeing session proved that just an hour outside doing a simple activity can bring smiles all round. Despite the cold (you can feel that snow is on its way), Chris was able to sow some sunflower seeds for his wellbeing garden which he planned out last year.

Sowing seeds is more than just a horticulture task, a job to get done. It represents hope, transition and new beginnings. And it brings Chris some independence in deciding how he wants to develop his own growing space. Chris (and his family) will be nurturing the seeds until our next session where we’ll be making a start on the raised beds.

How can therapeutic gardening help during the pandemic?

It all begins with some blooming good ideas!

For many of us the rapidly changing pandemic landscape has unsurprisingly led to increased anxiety. Daily routines can change at very short notice as the Government introduces new restrictions with no timescales for things getting back to normal. For Chris, and other people living with autism, these uncertainties can be even more overwhelming.

Working one-to-one with Chris at home enables him to focus on something positive within an environment that he feels comfortable and safe. Each session is part of a personalised Garden to Wellbeing programme designed to reduce anxiety, create a sense of personal achievement and help him to feel happy and hopeful about the future.

Chris has planned his own wellbeing garden and we’ll be working together to create it over the coming months. He’s already made a bug hotel and planter, and we’ll be supporting him to grow the flowers, herbs and vegetables in his design.

Find out more about our seasonal gardening activities.

Perfect pallet planter

We love reusing wood to create new growing containers so when Chris chose to build a planter for this Garden to Wellbeing activity session we were delighted.

Handmade from reclaimed pallets, Chris measured, sanded and hammered his way to producing this beautiful oak planter and he’s proud as punch.

Building the planter enabled Chris to develop his woodworking skills as well as look forward to finishing a multi-day project.

The activity has inspired Chris to want to develop his own garden space where he can grow flowers, vegetables and herbs. He’s not short of ideas for the design and we’ll be sharing our progress with you in the coming weeks.

Hear more about how Chris made the planter:

New bug hotel opens to guests

A new luxury hotel with ‘all the creature comforts’ has opened up to quite a fanfare. The three story Travel Bug Lodge includes a penthouse suite and pine cone, stick and sunflower themed rooms. Constructed from dismantled pallet boxes, natural materials and a creative vision, several spiders have already been seen moving in.

Garden to Wellbeing Champion Chris loves working with wood and used a range of tools to construct the hotel, including a saw, hammer, sander and drill. He designed the layout and collected some natural materials to complete the job.

This activity worked on:

  • decision making skills
  • safe tool use
  • creativity
  • planning
  • teamwork
  • communication
  • relaxation and fun

“Thank you Garden to Wellbeing! Chris absolutely loved building the bug hotel with you and will get so much pleasure looking at it in the garden. It made me feel so happy and proud to see him following your instructions and being so confident using the tools.” Kim, mum

Meet our new Garden to Wellbeing Champion

I’d like to introduce you to our new Garden to Wellbeing Champion, Chris.

23 year old Chris loves the outdoors and spends as much time as he can in and around nature. As someone who lives with autism he finds some settings overwhelming, so gardens provide a quiet, restorative space where he can relax and have fun.

We’ve got lots of exciting activities planned with Chris and as our new Garden to Wellbeing Champion he’ll be letting us (and you) know what he thinks of them.

For our first project we’ll be building a brand new bug hotel for his garden so keep your eyes peeled for updates.