The Master Gardener’s Bookshelf
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, by Sue Stuart-Smith
Review by Cindy Robertson, Extension Master Gardener
Have you ever wondered why you feel so good after gardening, even with all of its challenges? Sue Stuart-Smith answers that question with warmth and wisdom in The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, an engaging collection of stories and scientific research. Published in 2020, just after the COVID outbreak, the book provides timely insight into the healing force of gardening.
In The Well-Gardened Mind, Stuart-Smith examines our historic relationship to gardens and demonstrates how gardening promotes mental health. She references archeology, literature, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience, among other fields. We learn, for example, that humans’ ties to gardening began earlier than thought, with late paleolithic foragers also weeding, diverting water, and transplanting plants. We also learn that simply working the soil with our bare hands has physiological benefits, including enhancing microbiome (beneficial bacteria) in our guts, and increasing levels of serotonin, a mood booster. Further, in as little as just 20 or 30 minutes in the garden, our stress hormone cortisol is reduced. Indeed, brain scans reveal that observing beauty lights up the same brain pathways as those for romantic love, endorphins, and dopamine, the “feel-good” brain chemicals.
Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist, shares many stories of those helped by gardening. She begins with her own family and the therapeutic benefit of a horticulture program to her grandfather’s recovery as a prisoner of war. Stuart-Smith admits that, as a young adult, she viewed gardening as outdoor housework. Only after marrying a landscape designer and spending time transforming their home gardens, did she truly understand first-hand how creating and caring for a garden has many health benefits. She noticed that gardening, as an immersive, outdoor activity, results in an almost magical feeling of calm invigoration. This led Stuart-Smith to question how gardening might help us find our place in a high-tech and increasingly urbanized world, and ultimately led to her write this book.
Stories of other people’s journeys of being helped by gardening play a prominent role in The Well-Gardened Mind. Insights from participants in mental health programs, prison garden projects, addiction centers, and community gardens provide inspiring tales of recovery. Stuart-Smith highlights how, in a two-way “dialogue” with nature, gardening naturally propels the gardener to positively anticipate the future, combating stress, anxiety, and depression. Likewise, caring for and nurturing a garden (be it ornamental or vegetable), enhances feelings of empowerment and community by creating something good that all can enjoy.
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Stuart-Smith confirms through numerous examples how gardens provide a refuge for those recovering from trauma, illness, and grief. Different types of garden spaces may even be designed for specific healing purposes. Garden rooms with high hedges and little else are ideal for calming the hyper-alertness of post-traumatic stress disorder, whereas meandering paths through varied landscapes are healing for those adjusting to wheelchairs. Stuart-Smith praises many recovery programs with therapeutic gardens, highlighting the restorative power of nature’s renewal.
Gardeners will find a soul-mate in Stuart-Smith and are certain to be inspired by the many health benefits outlined in The Well-Gardened Mind. Be sure to add it to your winter reading list to become even more excited for spring!
- If you are a Master Gardener and interested in sharing the therapeutic benefits of gardening, please join our new initiative to provide horticulture instruction to those recovering from illness or surgery and older adults living in local assisted living facilities. No prior experience is required, just your creativity, knowledge of horticulture, and enthusiasm for sharing both. For more information, contact Tricia Rodgers through our Help Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For more information regarding the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits of gardening, see this free, recorded, video presentation: Gardening for Wellness, Part 1, by Extension Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia Tricia Rodgers and Anne Wilson.
- On March 4, 2023, from 10 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., attend the live Zoom presentation titled: Feel-Good EcoSavvy Gardening, presented by Green Spring Extension Master Gardeners. Kathleen Wellington, LPC, Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional will introduce the cultural and scientific history of how gardening affects your physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Laurie Fox, PhD, Horticulture Associate, Virginia Tech, then will illustrate sustainable gardening techniques using plants to reclaim contaminated soil and groundwater. Register at 703-642-5173 or online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/parktakes — Code: GRF.K8L9. Cost: $24 in county/$26 out of county.
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, by Sue Stuart-Smith, Scribner, 2020 is available at the Arlington Public Library and from national booksellers.