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Thinking green and why there’s therapeutic value in gardening

Horticulture helps the mental health of everyone from prisoners to war veterans – and that also includes you.

Thinking green and why there’s therapeutic value in gardening

(Photo: Pexels)

The winners in lockdown have been country dwellers, especially those with gardens, so they may be inclined to agree with this quote: “God made the country, man made the town.”

The author of this famous verse was William Cowper, who lived in the country in the late 18th century.

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However, he was beset with depression and at one time was put into an asylum in St Albans. I do not believe the first part of his sentence, so his contrast collapses. Gardening, a man-made skill, transcends it. It is equally enjoyable in town and country, two god-free zones.

What, if any, are its benefits to mental and social health? The topic has hit the UK bestsellers’ lists, thanks to Sue Stuart-Smith’s fascinating new book The Well-Gardened Mind.

Well done, indeed: She is married to Tom, one of the UK’s most admired garden designers, and is a keen gardener, liking to grow auriculas. She is also a psychiatrist and now a teacher at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London. So she spans the two fields.

Psychiatrists deal with a range of patients but when they pass on wisdom to the rest of us in plain language, it can sound rather weird. “When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility” or “We all need to feel a sense of potency and to give and receive nurture”. Must we therefore garden?

I have just tried the latter on two twenty-something males, working as contractors in the garden. At first they thought I was teasing them. Then they thought I was telling them to get two girlfriends, not one, and learn to cook.

One of Stuart-Smith’s recurring themes is the interest which great shrinks have shown in gardens. She implies it is especially significant. The guru of child psychiatrists, Donald Winnicott, enjoyed his roof garden in London and his cottage garden in Devon. However, he also stated at the end of his life that “a great deal of growing is growing downwards” and he hoped he would live to “become small enough to get through the little hole called dying”. If he had been my patient, I would have found that very interesting.

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Stuart-Smith emphasises Freud’s love of flowers, especially gardenias and orchids. The great man once wrote to his daughter Anna: “The rain today didn’t stop me from going to a special place and picking the magnificent White Orchids which are so incomparably fragrant.” He would need to be less selfish about them nowadays. He was a flower-voyeur, not an actual gardener. He liked cut flowers and views of gardens from his window.

In his Swiss Cottage garden he enjoyed a leafy plant in a pot, a Sparrmannia, which reminded him of one of his gardens in Austria. I have exactly this plant in a pot beside my own front door. It derives from a tall plant owned by the great American gardener Nancy Lancaster, which came from a cutting given to her by Laurence Olivier. It stood outside the first house we rented in my married years. Is it revealing that I still remember all that detail? Maybe, but it also increases my enjoyment of the plant.

Jung, by contrast, was truly hands-on, growing potatoes and beans and poppies round his rural tower at Bollingen, Switzerland. He believed “such experiences were a way of accessing the ‘two million-year-old man’ that is in all of us”. That is a fantasy. What about Eskimos, who have never gardened, or the millions of nomads who never own a plot of land, though Jung thought we all should own one in order to return to our “ancient instincts”? Those people are human, too.

Stuart-Smith cites an intriguing book by Bronisław Malinowski, the anthropologist who lived among the Trobriand Islanders. In his Coral Gardens and their Magic he presented them as “first and foremost” gardeners and believed that in each village the head man was the “garden wizard”. I much like the idea of being one. However, the islanders’ brains were not hard-wired to gardening by connections that had “persisted” during evolution. Nor are ours.

The very best parts of The Well-Gardened Mind are its accounts of modern gardens that are being used as therapy. The charity Thrive in London, Reading and the Midlands runs a valuable Growing Options project for “14 to 16-year olds who have been excluded from school”. Near the Adriatic coast, an Italian centre at San Patrignano treats drug addicts by organising them into communities, some of which grow vegetables for as many as 1,300 participants.

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The author’s interview with a former addict, Renata, is fascinating. At first Renata “hated” the work and “resented” the plants. She has come to love cacti (spiky) and petunias (purple) and now thinks plants “are always giving something to somebody . . . If you care for the plants they give back to you.” I am not sure about that “giving” but she feels she has lost the pride that once made her at odds with life and turned her to drugs.

What about locked-up gardeners? Stuart-Smith gives intriguing examples of gardening for prisoners, especially the GreenHouse programme that has been running since 1986 at the huge prison complex on Rikers Island on the edge of New York. Inmates testify to the way that the gardens and their work in them help them to look outwards and reform. Rates of reoffending are considered to be notably lower in prisons with well-run garden outlets. Locked-up lives matter too: we should roll out prison garden schemes nationally.

Garden schemes are also helpful to traumatised war veterans. Stuart-Smith cites the HighGround charity, formerly at Headley Court in Surrey and now in Nottinghamshire. I have featured here its leader Anna Baker Cresswell and remember asking her if traumatised course members who would wander off at times were really much use as gardeners. “We are not doing it for the gardening,” she well replied.

My main objections are two. Stuart-Smith writes as if all is always for the best in a green garden. From a life spent in the front line, I disagree. Gardening is a lesson that so much goes wrong, thanks to anything from rabbits to drought to mildew. It is not just idyllic therapy. In our dry May my garden made me distraught. It teaches me a hard lesson, to take the rough with the smooth.

I also reject her view that those in cities who have lost contact with nature are necessarily deprived and depressed. Some of them are utterly thankful to have done so. I try to remember that great anti-gardener, Sue Townsend’s teenage Adrian Mole. True, he was “racked with sexuality, but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on the rose bed”.

He also pitied those like his pensioner neighbour, Bert Baxter, who had nothing but plants in pots to look after. What to me is urban frippery is to Mole and others very heaven, the shopping, the cocktails, the so-called buzz of what is hyped as a “dynamic hub”. It is not for me, but I would never say they would be happier if it was not for them too. A garden, like shopping, is not a one-way route to serenity.

By Robin Lane Fox © 2020 The Financial Times

Source: Financial Times