Sue Stuart-Smith

The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World

“A garden gives you a protected physical space which helps you increase your sense of mental space.”

“In Gardening, we step beyond the dictation of time.” wrote novelist Penelope Lively. Lively wrote from her experience of the way gardening releases humans from burdens, in this case, the unrelenting passage of time. 

“I discovered the pleasure of wandering through the garden with a free-floating attention…” echoes psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith in her book The Well Gardened Mind, a generous study of how gardening nurtures and nourishes our inner space. 

I discovered the pleasure of wandering through the garden with a free-floating attention, registering how the plants were changing, growing, ailing, fruiting. Gradually the way I thought about mundane tasks such as weeding, hoeing and watering changed; I came to see that it is important not so much to get them done, but to let oneself be fully involved in the doing of them. Watering is calming long as you are not in a hurry – and, strangely, when it is finished, you end up feeling refreshed, like the plants themselves.

My may garden in bloom. Featured in Sue Stuart Smith's "the Well Gardened Mind" in the Examined Life Library.
My May garden in bloom. “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” wrote Emerson in his essays on the connection to nature and the unknowable divine. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Stuart-Smith studied English literature at the University of Cambridge before qualifying as a doctor. She is currently the lead clinician for psychotherapy in Hertfordshire and teaches at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London.

Stuart-Smith’s long career in psychotherapy has been well-lived alongside some herbaceous borders created by her husband, landscape architect and gardener Tom Stuart-Smith. Since opening his eponymous firm in 1998, Mr. Stuart-Smith has imagined and shaped gardens throughout the world including The Hepworth-Wakefield Garden which gives movement and spirit to sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s critical works.

Stuart-Smith writes:

A garden gives you a protected physical space which helps increase your sense of mental space and it gives you quiet, so you can hear your own thoughts. The more you immerse yourself in working with your hands, the more free you are internally to sort feelings out and work them through. These days, I turn to gardening as a of calming and decompressing my mind. Somehow, the jangle of competing thoughts inside my head clears and settles as the weed bucket fills up. Ideas that have been lying dormant come to the surface and thoughts that are barely formed sometimes come together and unexpectedly take shape. At times like these, it feels as if alongside all the physical activity, I am also gardening my mind.

Gertrude Jekyll's illustration of summer flowers showing her color scheme and drift planting. Featured in Sue Stuart-Smith's "The Well-Gardened Mind" in The Examined Life Library.
Gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s illustration of summer flowers showing her color scheme and drift planting. “To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for color, is by no means the easy thing that is commonly supposed” wrote Jekyll in her culture shifting gardening book.

From the reflection of how a single tree a positively correlates to our well-being, to a bright observation that individuals seek the sun whenever possible (no one lunches in the basement, for example, but out in a park), Stuart-Smith demonstrates how humans significantly rely on aspects of cultivated nature to restore their tired, over-burdened minds.

It makes me think of American President John Adams, longing for his Boston plot from Continental Congress, or Henry David Thoreau setting about planting beans near Walden Pond as the singular focus of his life.

My garden shed. Featured in Sue Stuart-Smith's "The Well Gardened Mind" in the Examined Life Library.
My garden, sometimes writing, shed. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Gardening, for many of us, is the antidote to urban and domestic life, not merely its embellishment.

Cities are crowded and our minds are crowded too but a visit to a park can help expand our sense of mental space. We are able to take a step back, think more clearly and return from our excursion feeling freer and less constrained by whatever was impinging on us before.

Vertical garden on a London construction site. Featured in Sue Stuart-Smith's "The Well Gardened Mind" in the Examined Life Library.
Vertical garden on a London construction site. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

For most of us, our need is not merely to step into garden space, but to dialogue: “I see gardening as an iteration…” Stuart-Smith reflects on the constant harmonizing humans do with plants, soil and water. Coaxing growth, responding to needs, adding nourishment.

I’ve written about the solitary nature of gardeners but in reality, they are in constant communion. An unspoken language of plant, water, seeds – organic and inorganic life forms that as Stuart-Smith describes, contain all the genetic code to empower life.1

I think of neurologist Oliver Sack’s lifelong pursuit to understand individuals with severe brain traumas and how it led him to a patient without the ability to form memory. This patient lived in a constant tormenting present, gathering data he had lost seconds before. His fragmented verbal personality was only relieved in the hospital’s garden.

Erigeron slipping its mulched harness. Featured in Sue-Stuart Smith's "The Well Gardened Mind" in the Examined Life Library.
Erigeron slipping its mulched harness, as erigeron always does. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Stuart-Smith illustrates how this mental calming has worked. At the simplest level, plants are safe from sudden movements and green light is easier for our mind to process. More complexly, cultivated nature provides a smooth platform for memory formation and psychological anchoring.2

Our autobiographical timeline is composed of memories but our sense of time elapsed is often hazy. This is because memory has a much stronger relationship to place than it does to the chronology of the clock. It is why we are often unsure about how long ago something happened but invariably know where it happened. Our remote ancestors living in the wild needed to map terrain and recall the whereabouts of resources, so there are evolutionary reasons why location might function as something like an index card to the memory system. In consequence, over the course of our lives, places become intimately woven into our autobiographical narrative and our sense of self.

My life could be measured in little steps and large leaps to acquire more land to garden, led by an idea to leave space a little better than we found it (for the bees at the very least). If just one of my readers buys a pot, clears a sill, reads the language of flowers or throws water on an accidentally-sprouted onion, that is a measure of success.

Featured in Sue-Stuart Smith's "The Well Gardened Mind" in the Examined Life Library.
Future gardener cultivating the gardener’s temperament. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Accompany a life-affirming read of The Well Gardened Mind with Stuart-Smith’s own collection of living artwork, well-worth a lingering visit. Or trot over to the Serge Hill Project, a private/community endeavor featuring a plant library, community vegetable crop managed by the Stuart-Smiths.