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Gardening as a mental health benefit

By October 30, 2020Beet November 2020

When your Board of Directors met via Zoom a couple of weeks ago, we remarked at how well everyone was looking. We seemed like a pretty cheerful bunch too, despite the constant stream of bad news over the past weeks and months. Wonder why? Maybe it’s because we are all gardeners!

This notion was reinforced by an article I read in The New Yorker of Aug. 24. In it, Rebecca Mead reviews a new book by a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Sue Stuart-Smith, called The Well-Gardened Mind. Although Stuart-Smith “had long viewed gardening as outdoor housework,” her interest in the benefits of gardening to mental health grew after marrying Tom Stuart-Smith, one of Britain’s best-known garden designers.

A new understanding of the connection between mental health and gardening has led primary care doctors in Britain to recommend volunteer work in local community gardens to their patients, as sometimes being as beneficial as talk therapy or antidepressants. Some hospitals incorporate gardens because their patients recover more quickly from injuries if they have access to outdoor spaces with plants. And believe it or not, laboratory rats whose cages contain soil and logs are said to be more energetic and sociable than those caged with a wheel, a ladder, and a tunnel.

A garden, according to Sue Stuart-Smith, can be a space where the inner and outer worlds coexist, a meeting place for “our innermost, dream-infused selves and the real physical world.” Gardening, because of its meditative and repetitive aspects, may be a form of play for grownups who have otherwise stopped playing and may be especially helpful for those suffering from PTSD. Working the soil in a garden allows a person to be alone and enter his own world, which can help heal a mind wounded by grief.

And for those of us who spend more time than we should seeking year-round perfection in our gardens, the Stuart-Smiths say that can be at odds with the satisfactions that gardening can promote. “A garden is fundamentally a process – there is change and sometimes it is dying and sometimes it is hibernating.” We should aim for “good-enough…it’s much more to do with how you feel about your garden than how it looks. It could be that your garden is the most fantastic mess, but if you love it, because there’s a fox living in one corner, and a lot of snails whom you know personally by name [well, I don’t know about that!], and you have a sort of in-depth relationship with it, then it’s a good-enough garden.”

In Britain as in the U.S., there’s been a big increase in the amount of time people have spent gardening during the COVID-19 crisis. (Although there already was a huge interest in gardening in that country. Eight out of ten people in Britain live in a home with a private garden and half of all adults already did some sort of gardening.)

This may not reflect just a desire to grow one’s own food in the face of uncertain supplies, or a way to use our time productively when we can’t socialize. With the loss of our ordinary way of life, Sue Stuart-Smith suggests, “Gardening has been a solace to so many…because it invokes the prospect of some kind of future, however uncertain and unpredictable it may be.”

So, stay healthy, everyone – by gardening!

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