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The Body

A Mind Shaped by Gardening

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Adapted excerpt from The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith. (Copyright © 2020 by Sue Stuart-Smith. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.)

Metamorphosis Credit Katie Eberts Copy
Metamorphosis, Katie Eberts

WE ARE a grassland species that emerged in the savannah landscapes of Africa.

Over the course of evolution, our nervous and immune systems have been primed to function best in response to various aspects of the natural world. This includes how much sunlight we get, the kind of microbes we are exposed to, the amount of green vegetation around us, and the type of exercise we take.

When we work with nature outside us, we work with nature inside us. It is why people feel more fully alive and energized

in the natural world, why gardeners report feeling calmer and more vigorous, and why spending time in nature awakens the connection-seeking aspects of our human nature.

When I began visiting therapeutic gardening groups as part of my research, I got a strong sense of all these benefits. On one of those visits I encountered a woman called Grace who suffered from anxiety and had been attending a small horticulture project for nearly a year. About 10 years previously, when she was in her 20s, she had experienced an unfortunate and distressing chain of events that had culminated in the death of a close friend. Following this, she developed depression and began to experience panic attacks. She spent most of her time indoors, trapped in a cycle of low self-esteem, feeling that nothing was going to change.

Grace had never done any gardening before. When her psychiatrist first suggested participating in a gardening group, she found it hard to imagine it would be helpful. Although she was uncertain whether or not to attend, once she did, she instantly took to the peacefulness of the garden: “There is no hustle and bustle,” she said. “It just calms me down being here.” She liked the fact there was no compulsion to do lots of gardening; it was possible just to sit and unwind if that was how she felt. 

Grace soon discovered, however, that when she did join in, the impetus of the group carried her along. Shared tasks help group bonding, but natural surroundings play a part too because people connect more easily when they are in nature together. It means that the psychological, social, and physical benefits of gardening go hand in hand.

On one level, a demonstration like this is simply about practical skills, but for someone as stuck in her life as Grace, a crucial message is also being unconsciously imparted—that change and renewal are possible and that she can help something grow. When, in time, the plants grow—and, of course, they do grow—then seeing is believing. And eating is believing too. For when you cook and share the produce, you taste it for real, and you know, really know, that something good has happened. As Grace said, “It makes a huge difference to see things from start to finish and know that you put the effort in to make it grow.”

Preparing and sharing food collectively was a new experience for her, as was the taste of freshly grown produce. The first thing she sampled was some sweet corn, and she was overwhelmed by how full of flavor and succulent it was. She recalled how, one time, when they were tidying up after sharing some soup together, the entire group started singing and dancing in a spontaneous outburst of joy. Grace was surprised at how involved she became with the plants she looked after, and how much pleasure and satisfaction she derived from seeing them thrive.

The contemporary emphasis on self-improvement and self-investment can make caring for something other than ourselves seem like a depleting activity, but the neurochemistry of care is not like that. Care has inbuilt neurochemical rewards. The feelings of calm and contentment that accompany nurture have benefits for giver and receiver alike, and there are obvious evolutionary reasons why this should be so. The anti-stress and antidepressant effect of these pleasurable feelings arises through the action of the bonding hormone oxytocin and release of beta-endorphins, the brain’s natural opioids.

“It helps me so much,” Grace told me. “It’s a whole new feeling—while I’m there, I’m in another world.” This world is about care and nurture, but also the soothing effects of being immersed in nature and the stimulation of sociable activities such as planting, harvesting, and sharing food. Gardening together, to some extent, replicates the kind of simple collaborative living, close to the land, that has typified our species for most of its existence.

Grace attends the project once a week and the good feeling she experiences there stays with her for a few days afterward. If she starts to feel anxious when she is at home, just thinking about the garden is helpful: “It’s like I have a calm place in my mind now,” she said. These days, as a result, she can get to the store on her own and is beginning to get out and do other things as well. When I spoke with her, she had just completed one year and signed up for another, and there was no question in her mind how much the project helped her: “It’s eleven out of ten,” she told me, even though I hadn’t asked her to rate it.