"The Well Gardened Mind: the Restorative Power of Nature" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Months of sheltering in a time of pandemic have confirmed awareness of the curative power of gardening for many people. Earlier this year people flocked to garden centers as a stressed society sought to become immersed in the healing cycle of life in nature: destruction and decay followed by regrowth and renewal.
Those who love the pastime have known for years that gardening is a personally nurturing activity which decreases stress and fosters mental well-being. In this book, Stuart-Smith now reports the scientific underpinnings of the beneficial physical and mental effects of tending plants.
She uses her clinical knowledge and experience as a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and gardener to examine what it is that makes gardening so crucial to mental health. A garden is far more than a physical space, it also is a mental space that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts.” Planting, weeding, and trimming are means of freeing the mind to work through feelings and problems.
“Watering is calming and strangely, when it is finished, you end up feeling refreshed, like the plants themselves,” she maintains. Gardening provides a “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.”
An English major in college, Stuart-Smith’s writing is informed by literary giants William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, and Wilfred Owen, in addition to therapists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. Utilizing the wisdom of all these “greats,” she defends her theory that modern living has disconnected people from nature and that tending plants can have significant therapeutic benefits.
“As we cultivate the earth, we cultivate an attitude of care towards the world,” she argues. More green spaces in neighborhoods, community gardens and cooking with homegrown vegetables are all good for the “heart and the mind.”
Progressive medical facilities have gardens that patients can view from hospital rooms or infusion centers. Urban hospitals have gone so far as to plant rooftop gardens. Planners of the recently built St. Clare Hospital in Fenton, Missouri have incorporated a prairie into the campus so patients may observe and connect with plants, butterflies, birds and other small creatures.
New prison programs also incorporate garden therapies. Rikers Island Prison in New York City has an extensive gardening program as a key component of its rehabilitation activities and statistics indicate the recidivism rate of offenders has declined significantly since Rikers instituted this program.
Stuart-Smith reports that countless charities run garden projects to help the disabled, traumatized, depressed, drug addicted, abused, unemployed, homeless, dying and bereaved because gardening integrates the emotional, physical, social, vocational, and spiritual aspects of life which improves mood and self-esteem.
This volume is an enjoyable mixture of neuroscience, physiology, psychoanalysis and personal stories. As the psychiatrist, gardener and author concludes: “In this era of virtual worlds and fake facts, the garden brings us back to reality.”