Think IN BED: The Well Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith

Interview by Elisha Kennedy

The Well Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith

Over the past decade, much research and work has been done so that we might better understand the relationship between human beings and nature. Spending time in natural landscapes has been repeatedly scientifically proven as being beneficial for our health, and in the pursuit of new and effective ways of managing mental health, Sue Stuart-Smith’s book The Well Gardened Mind combines contemporary neuroscience, case studies and personal essay to turn our gaze outward, to consider the potential of the garden.

Stuart-Smith works as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and is married to Tom Stuart-Smith, the celebrated garden designer. They live together in Hertfordshire, just north of London and have spent the last 30 years building and maintaining the impressive Barn Garden at their home in Serge Hill.

The Well Gardened Mind shares anecdotes from Stuart-Smith’s life as a clinician and gardener, and shares detailed studies of gardening programs in prisons and rehabilitation centres alongside individual cases of people suffering from PTSD and various physical and mental traumas.

Stuart-Smith’s writing is so rich in wisdom and hope, that it’s only fitting to share some of its excerpts with you below, alongside some of our favourite images of beautiful gardens we’ve visited over the years for the Journal.

A thoughtful and timely book, The Well Gardened Mind reads like a call to arms, beckoning us with a gentle urgency to plunge our hands into the soil.

The garden of florist Gabriela Salazar in Valle De Bravo, Mexico.

“Gardening is simultaneously ancient and modern. Ancient because of the evolutionary fit between brain and nature and also ancient as a way of life between foraging and farming, that expresses our deeply inscribed need to attach to place. Modern, because the garden is intrinsically forward looking and the gardener is always aiming for a better future.”

Chef François Poulard prepares a meal with produce from the garden at Chiswick in Woollahra, Sydney.

“Trees give structure and a sense of enduring life to a place. They make us feel safe and protected. Their size and beauty contribute to how easily we develop strong attachments to them. They provide a habitat for birds, insects and all sorts of other creatures, and for us too - if not physically, then emotionally. Maybe there is something primal in this, because trees, after all, were our ancestral home.”

Jardine Hansen tends to her beautifully wild garden in Longley, Tasmania.

“Gardening is, of course, an intrinsically hopeful act and it is a reparative act, but, particularly in the world today, it can also be a defiant act. Urban farms..are part of an expanding counter-culture that is focused on growing fruits and vegetables using sustainable methods as an alternative to a highly industrialised food system. In this way gardening can provide a bigger story within which people can locate themselves.”

Visiting the garden of Hayley McKee, author of the cookbook Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb.

”..the colour green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment. Along with blue, it automatically takes us to a lower level of arousal. Esther Senberg, a physician who writes about the properties of healing spaces, calls the colour green ‘the default mode for our brains’. She explains that: ‘the photoreceptor pigment gene that emerged first in evolutionary history is the one most sensitive to the spectral distribution of sunlight and to the wavelengths of light refracted from green plants.’ It is not surprising therefore that the amount of greenery in a garden is directly related to how restorative it is.”

The sprawling gardens of María Violante Chávez in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Trauma changes the inner landscape in a way that is fundamentally displacing and the physicality of gardening in this context is important - it is about getting dirt under your fingernails, planting yourself in the soil, rebuilding a sense of connection to place and to life in the process.”

You might like to see if you can order The Well Gardened Mind in at your local bookstore, who need your support more than ever this year.