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Why Gardening Offers a ‘Psychological Lifeline’ in Times of Crisis

We sow a first flat of seeds; we gently rake debris from a bed to make way for a winter aconite or snowdrop to poke through and cheer us. And so …

Why Gardening Offers a ‘Psychological Lifeline’ in Times of Crisis
16.03.2022 18:16

We sow a first flat of seeds; we gently rake debris from a bed to make way for a winter aconite or snowdrop to poke through and cheer us. And so it begins, again.

I was reminded recently to watch for the garden’s intangible but transformative yields, when I read Sue Stuart-Smith’s acclaimed 2020 book, “The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature.”

“Gardening can be understood as a form of space-time medicine,” writes Dr. Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist based in England, who created the Barn Garden, in Hertfordshire, with her husband, Tom Stuart-Smith, a landscape designer.

Her sweeping book is loaded with the science behind such assertions, but also informed and enlivened by literature, which she took her degree in at Cambridge before turning to medicine.

Vegetable plots at The Orchard, a nonprofit community garden that Dr. Stuart-Smith and her husband, Tom Stuart-Smith, a landscape designer, are collaborating on in Hertfordshire, England. Dr. Stuart-Smith, who loves to cook, started growing herbs, and then vegetables, attracted to the nurturing power of the garden. “For me, it’s about nourishment, both physical and psychological,” she said.Credit…Charlie Harpur

Dr. Stuart-Smith takes us along as she witnesses gardening’s healing effects on prison inmates and soldiers with PTSD engaged in horticultural programs, and on patients suffering from grief and depression.

Over and over again, she reminds us of the lasting imprints of our hunter-gatherer heritage. “We live with our evolutionary past, or rather it lives through us,” Dr. Stuart-Smith writes.

At first, gardening might seem like “outdoor housework,” as it did to her at a younger age.

But no: “If you are not a gardener, it may seem strange to think that scrabbling about in the soil can be a source of existential meaning,” she writes, “but gardening gives rise to its own philosophy, and it is one that gets worked out in the flower beds.”

In the garden, we can grow hope. (This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.)

At the Barn Garden, at Dr. Stuart-Smith’s home in Hertfordshire, hornbeam hedges (Carpinus betulus) form a series of interlocking spaces, “like calm, green rooms on even the most overcast of days,” she writes in “The Well-Gardened Mind.”Credit…Tom Stuart-Smith

It’s seed-starting time. You write that “gardening is about setting life in motion,” and that seeds “help us re-create the world anew.”

For me, the magic of seeds is really important. It’s one of the things that hooked me into gardening.

You never get over it, do you?

There’s always an element of excitement. I never take it for granted. Seeds are such tiny things, but they are packed with life. Think of the size of the sunflower seed, and compare it to a fully grown sunflower plant. The transformation is phenomenal.

It’s no accident that at the beginning of the pandemic there was a run on seeds. Gardening grounds us, and gives us something to look forward to. In times of crisis, these simple qualities can offer a psychological lifeline.

Seeds possess all their needed genetic coding.

Absolutely. We unlock that by watering and nurturing them. Gardening is an accessible form of creativity, and allows us to bring something new into the world. One powerful example has to be the gardens created by soldiers in the trenches during World War I. In that appalling landscape of death and destruction, they grew colorful flowers from seed, and their beauty helped them hold on to an alternative reality.

Or for the prisoners I interviewed at the GreenHouse project on Rikers Island in New York: Working with nature’s powers of growth and transformation helped them believe in their own capacity to change their lives.

Allium christophii, Euphorbia ceratocarpa and Iris Sable Night, in the Stuart-Smiths’ Barn Garden courtyard. “It’s important not to overlook the therapeutic power of beauty,” Dr. Stuart-Smith said.Credit…Tom Stuart-Smith

In my 20s, I had to care for my widowed mother, who was ill. I discovered gardening, and cut down the privet hedge, because I read you could rejuvenate it. And, speaking of optimism, I started about four million seeds. What brought you to the garden?

Like you, I lost a parent in my early 20s, when my father died. Gardening was not my immediate response, but I found great solace in the natural world. I started gardening about seven years later, after I married.

My husband was just embarking on his career in garden design. When our youngest child was starting school, I became interested in growing culinary and medicinal herbs. I had a little herb garden near the children’s sand pit and Wendy house. They would be busy playing and I’d be busy gardening, so I wasn’t hovering over them. We were alongside each other. I do think of gardening as a form of play — in an adult way.

I got into growing vegetables. Gardening is such a strong expression of nurturing, and I love cooking. The rewards of growing produce were really important. I do grow flowers, but the ones I love best are the ones you can bring into the house. For me, it’s about nourishment, both physical and psychological.

And the feeling of putting down roots was very reparative. Having lost my father, it helped me enormously to feel that I could make my own home and have my own children.

You write about powerlessness — that gardening teaches us we’re never really in control.

There is a paradox here: Gardening is empowering, and it’s also disempowering. It feels enormously empowering to harvest your own pumpkins and share your delicious tomatoes. You know you’ve made something good happen, and you can share the pleasure and the nourishment.

I see gardening as a coming together of human creative energy and nature’s creative energy. This can make it more accessible than other creative, therapeutic activities.

Learning to paint, you start with a blank canvas — it’s all down to you. In the garden, we are facilitating a creative process, and we can feel a wonderful sense of achievement when it goes well, although really nature has done most of it.

As part of that, we have to accept that we’re not fully in control, either. There are times of real despondency, when things go badly wrong — when you discover your precious lettuces have been eaten by rabbits.

People tend to see gardening as a hobby — an activity — but I think it’s primarily a relationship. Many gardeners speak of the importance of feeling part of something larger than themselves. This is where the deeper existential experiences in the garden come from, this feeling of being part of the web of life.

Some of the garden rooms formed by hedging at the Barn Garden are unplanted, while others are teeming with plants. Foxtail lilies (Eremurus Joanna) are having their moment in one such space in the garden.Credit…Tom Stuart-Smith

I’m with you. And it’s a reciprocal relationship, you write.

To be a gardener, you need to tune in to how the plants are doing, and attend to what they need. Many gardeners also testify to a feeling of receiving something in return — of being gifted, almost, whether through beauty or the food they harvest.

Some of the things I celebrate most are the incidental things — the annual flowers that crop up, that have sown themselves. When I garden, I have a sense of reciprocity: I do a bit, and then nature does her bit, and then I respond. There’s a feeling of to and fro.

This more symbiotic form of relationship — responding to and working with nature, rather than controlling or exploiting it — is what we need to shift to collectively. So it becomes less about simply taking what we want from the garden, and more about a way of gardening that is beneficial for nature in the broader sense, through enhancing biodiversity and caring for the soil.

There’s that Zen expression, “Chop wood, carry water.” When you’re doing something, be in the moment. Like weeding: It’s repetitive, but meditative.

Absolutely. Those rhythmical, mindful activities that engage your hands are very replenishing, a form of meditation. There are other ways you can experience this; it’s not exclusive to the garden. But working with nature’s creative energies is unique to gardening.

People often describe losing themselves in the garden. Therapeutically, this is important. When the ego falls away and we are at one with a task, we experience a sense of inner calm. For people who are depressed or struggling with anxious or negative thoughts, that switching off the dialogue in their head can be very, very helpful.

The garden gives you a protected physical space,” you write, “which helps increase your sense of mental space.” You mention gardeners losing themselves in flow states.

I think weeding can be an effective way of entering into a flow state. The immersive quality of gardening helps pull us into the present moment. It can be a form of mindfulness which has well-recognized anti-stress effects.

While gardening brings us into the present, it also has an intrinsic future orientation. The sense of positive anticipation we can feel in working with the natural growth force brings with it a sense of purpose and motivation. There are many times when this can be extremely helpful. I sometimes feel the garden pulls me in and gets me going.

The way we experience time through the garden is central to its therapeutic effects. Rather like the paradox of empowering and disempowering, gardening puts us in touch with the transience of life, but it also allows us to feel the continuity of life. This can be enormously consoling for people recovering from trauma and loss.

I only half-joke that my favorite place is the compost heap, that eternal-life dimension.

I quote Stanley Kunitz, the poet, in the book about that. As a young man, he worked on a farm, and learned that “death is absolutely essential for the survival of life itself on the planet.”

I noticed that compost held great symbolic significance for some prisoners I interviewed. The way that waste produce can create something so healthy, if you let it do its thing, is a powerful metaphor. It brings with it a sense of potential and the possibility of transformation toward new life.

An effusion of yarrow (Achillea Gold Plate) with plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) and grasses at the Barn Garden.Credit…Tom Stuart-Smith

I learned in your book that Sigmund Freud loved flowers.

He was also something of an amateur botanist. He drew attention to the fact that flowers have neither conflicts nor emotions. Much of the peacefulness we can experience in the presence of plants derives from this quality.

In contrast, human relating is complex and demanding. Plants don’t have thoughts about us, and they can’t judge us. The value of this came across very strongly in interviews with the prisoners, who found respite from feelings of shame when tending plants.

Freud, like so many of us, loved flowers above all for their beauty. It’s important not to overlook the therapeutic power of beauty. Beauty is a form of emotional nourishment. Research shows how powerfully it activates the emotional centers deep in the brain.

This effect is not unique to the garden, but a garden can offer us a concentrated dose of natural beauty.

But we must allow it in.

One of the things I’m really keen on is maintaining a balance in the garden between doing, on the one hand, and being, on the other. I went through a phase of almost relentlessly doing, until one day I realized I was always going out and looking for jobs — looking for trouble, almost. Where were the weeds?

I think it can be difficult for gardeners to put down their tools and sit quietly, to just let themselves be in nature.

The garden supports “attention restoration,” you write.

You can’t be in a garden without being immersed in nature, and green nature is cognitively replenishing. One study compared students walking in an arboretum with students walking down a highway. Those who had spent time in nature performed significantly better on subsequent tests. This is not surprising, if you think about our hunter-gatherer heritage: Our brain evolved in the context of the natural world.

The garden, and nature, can show us the way.

It can do, absolutely, if we are open to it. I think some people find that quite hard, and gardening can be pretty intimidating as a beginner. It’s why I always encourage people to start with things that are easy to grow.

Not asparagus from seed, maybe, like you did? That’s bold.

Yes, it probably was. But I figured I had nothing to lose. We were setting out on creating a garden and didn’t have much money. We had time; we were young. I thought, “Why not? Let’s see.”

We’ve had to replenish the asparagus beds more recently, and bought crowns. But growing our first asparagus from seed was very satisfying. So much of gardening is about delayed gratification, and with asparagus, it is a long wait.

Learning patience.

Learning patience — and learning that when things go wrong, it’s not a disaster. Something will always go right in the garden. Some things will come good.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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