NINETEENTH-CENTURY POET Minnie Aumonier once wrote, “When the world grows weary and society ceases to please, there is still the garden.” It turns out that slightly insidious sentiment etched on countless gardening mugs and Pinterest boards is rooted in a deeper truth revealed by Sue Stuart-Smith, a UK-based psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher and gardener in her 2020 book, The Well -Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature. “
The book, a voluminous volume that combines personal interviews and social science study, shows how connecting with nature nourishes and grounds us, giving us a sense of protection and security even when (when) the world around us is tense. Stuart-Smith begins with a look at nurturing, examining how the process of gardening, even the tedious routine and weeds, helps restore our physical, emotional, and even spiritual balance. “A long session in the garden can leave you feeling dead on your feet but oddly renewed — as if you’ve worked on yourself in the process,” she writes.
Chapter two, “Seeds and Confidence,” contrasts the implied belief in sowing seeds in anticipation of a harvest and the “creative power of illusion,” the intoxicating role we assume, however subservient, to bring about a moment of Beauty to complete in a garden. The author notes, “Creating a little bit of reality is empowering, but, crucially, in the garden we’re never in complete control.”
In a chapter entitled “Radical Solutions” (Stuart-Smith notes that the word radical comes from the plant world and refers to roots), the author introduces a variety of community organizers from around the world who feed their neighbors by planning, planting, and tending small plots of free food—a plot of rosemary, sage, and thyme in front of a butcher shop; Apothecary beds filled with lavender, echinacea, chamomile and other supportive herbs planted around a health center; or a city street planting full of healthy produce. It sounds so obvious and practical as well as utterly delightful.
Hectic schedules and overcrowded conditions leave us mentally and emotionally drained — not to mention a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. That is much. Chronic stress leads to burnout, which increases the risk of depression and contributes to other physical illnesses.
In a discussion of cultivating our “emotional landscape,” particularly loss and grief, Stuart-Smith writes, “The circle of life [in a garden] can help us, because in the depths of winter, believing in the return of spring gives us something to hold on to.”
I keep coming back to a chapter heavily marked with highlighter yellow and titled “Garden Time”. “The garden is a place that takes us back to the basic biological rhythms of life,” says Stuart-Smith. Not only are we forced to slow down to the “plant pace”, but we are always given a new chance thanks to the promise of another growing season. Or, as Stuart-Smith eloquently states, “There is comfort in the structure of seasonal time.”
Over the course of those oh-so-odd years, a growing tide of new gardeners longing to get their hands in the dirt and develop a relationship with plants has led to a skyrocketing interest in houseplants and booming nursery sales. It’s a beautiful cycle: taking care of gardens is good for us, which in turn helps us take care of each other.