How gardening boosts wellbeing: Sue Stuart-Smith’s The Well Gardened Mind

PUBLISHED: 17:44 24 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:44 24 November 2020

Hedges and trees in the Barn Garden at Serge Hill

Hedges and trees in the Barn Garden at Serge Hill

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The Barn Garden at Serge Hill near Watford is the inspirations for the psychiatrist’s new book on the power of gardening to improve mental health

Sue's vegetable garden - now packed with herbs and flowers tooSue's vegetable garden - now packed with herbs and flowers too

It’s a cool autumn morning at my desk at home as I frantically finish a deadline for work. The last few weekends have been too wet to get outside in my garden, but the one ahead promises no rain and no wind, meaning some long overdue projects can be started. The prospect of getting my hands into the soil, to be grounded again, is delightful.

As I pondered my weekend’s gardening ahead, I became aware of a news item on the radio: ‘A new study finds that having plants in a front garden reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol’ it broadcast. The four-year study by the Royal Horticultural Society and the universities of Sheffield, Westminster, and Virginia in the US, found that adding plants to previously bare font gardens in economically deprived streets in Salford, Greater Manchester lowered residents’ stress levels and made them feel happier. Other evidence of gardening’s healing powers comes from our favourite TV gardener, Monty Don, who advocates in his latest book My Garden World that we should all be connecting more with wildlife, nature and the environment.

Adding to this swelling of evidence, Hertfordshire-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith has written an inspirational book. The Well Gardened Mind offers a new insight into the power of gardening and explores the many ways it can help transform lives. The book considers recent research into why we feel more alive and energised in the natural world, why gardeners report feeling calmer and more vigorous, and why spending time in nature awakens the connection-seeking aspects of human nature.

With all the social restrictions this year, many of us have taken refuge in our gardens and outdoor spaces. ‘It’s really been the year of the garden, both nationally and globally,’ says Sue. ‘Doing things in your garden and shaping your environment is very stabilising when everything else around us is unpredictable. Gardening can give you the chance to plan for the future, to nurture and spend time outside.’

Sue Stuart-SmithSue Stuart-Smith

Sue looks at the effects gardening can have on wellbeing and mental health across various aspects in her book with illuminating stories of people struggling with stress, depression, trauma and addiction, from asylum seekers to veterans, inner-city young people to the retired, as well as her own grandfather’s return from World War I. She considers the physical changes that happen to us as we enter a garden and how that can lead to a relaxed physiological state.

Sue is married to renowned landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith, and it wasn’t until the couple moved to the converted barn buildings close to Tom’s family home at Serge Hill near the village of Bedmond more than 30 years ago that she started to become interested in gardening. Before then, gardening was not something she would ever devote much time to. 
‘It was something I wasn’t interested in,’ Sue explains, ‘but when moved to The Barn there was no garden at all, it was all stony fields. Tom and I began to make a garden from scratch.’ Plots were carved out of the fields, and trees and hedges were planted to create boundaries. The ground was improved with stone-picking parties where family members, including Sue and Tom’s young children, helped to fill endless buckets of rocks and pebbles. Once their youngest was at school, Sue made a herb garden and so began a process of becoming hooked on growing and gardening. She next created a vegetable garden which today has a range of cut flowers, herbs and vegetables all growing together. Sue’s greatest gardening buzz is growing things from seed. As she says in her book: ‘Seeds give no hint of what is to come, and their size bears no relation to the dormant life within. I can feel how new life creates an attachment from the way I find myself coming back almost compulsively to check on my seeds and seedlings; going out to the greenhouse, holding my breath as I enter, not wanting to disrupt anything, the stillness of life just coming into being.’

A new project for Sue and Tom, and very much linked to both their areas of expertise, is the Serge Hill Project for Gardening and Health. This community garden in the orchard area aims to work with nature to transform health and wellbeing. An education and resource centre building designed by their architect son Ben was given planning permission in January. Lockdown has delayed progress, but Tom has been working with Sunnyside Rural Trust in Berkhamsted, a charity providing horticultural training for people with learning disabilities. The team grew plants on the orchard site for his proposed show garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Although the show was cancelled, the plants were used for other projects. Elsewhere on the site, allotments were created earlier in the year and are used by local residents. And there are plans to create more. Tom’s design studio will move from London into the new building once it’s completed. The seeds of this project are growing in new and wonderful ways.

Spring in the courtyard gardenSpring in the courtyard garden

The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Sue Stuart-Smith is published by William Collins. It is also available as an audio book narrated by the author.

Visit here for details of talks and events by Sue. And here for an online tour of The Barn Garden. 


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