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.