The Well Gardened Mind

by Sue Stuart-Smith

Published by William Collins, 2020, pp. 341, 16 colour plates, £20
ISBN 978-0-00-810071-1

Review by Sally Smith

I sat down to write this review just after unearthing a few first early potatoes, that fossicking you do to find out if they are ready yet. There are few better gardening moments in my view…….bear with me. In the introduction to her book Sue Stuart-Smith relates an old folk tale of the King who sets a task for the suitors to his daughter’s hand: to find an object so unique and special that no one in the world had set eyes on before.  They came back with novel treasures galore. But (you know how such tales go) the winner was the Gardener’s son who gave the king a nut and a pair of nut-crackers – he would be the first to see something no living soul had set eyes on before. This tells you much about this book, which gently explores and unfolds all the ways in which gardening is a very important and valuable human activity not least the pleasure of revealing treasure…..like my potatoes.

Sue Stuart-Smith is a prominent psychiatrist and psychotherapist and wife of the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith and this book is in part the story of the garden they have created together over 30 years.  But as she unfolds her own experience of becoming a gardener she explores the benefits of gardening for our mental and emotional health. This is a very current concern: we all instinctively know that gardening is good for us and in this thoughtful, careful book she unpacks why that is the case. The insights are grounded in history (for example, in 1796 William Tuke founded the first asylum set in a park with gardens and greenhouses) and in numerous contemporary case studies, from the gardens created by the prisoners on Rikers Island in New York (the largest penal colony in the world) to Horatio’s Garden for spinal injury patients at Salisbury hospital.  There is also science: did you know that there are ‘gardening cells’ in your brain?? As our brains develop, neurons have to be cleared away to give space for the remaining cells to create new networks and connections. Special cells called microglia crawl about in our neural networks weeding and rooting out weak connections and damaged cells, mostly while we are asleep. Now there’s something to think about!

The chapter on war and gardening includes descriptions of the numerous ‘trench gardens’ created in the First World War and leads us back to the person who was the inspiration for this book. Sue Stuart-Smith’s grandfather, Ted May, was a submariner who in 1915 in the Gallipoli campaign was taken prisoner and endured brutal privations in Turkish labour camps. Eventually he escaped with a few others and astonishingly made his way home, arriving in such an emaciated condition that he was not expected to live. Happily he was nursed back to health by his fiancée and lived a long life. In 1920 he embarked on a horticultural training course being run for ex-servicemen at Sarisbury Court, near Southampton.  When she was writing this book, Sue contacted me to find out what we knew about Sarisbury Court. All she had of Ted’s time there was a letter of recommendation written when he graduated from the course, giving his horticultural skills and stating he was an ‘intelligent, hardworking, trustworthy and sober man’. Ted did not become a professional gardener but always had a love of gardening that his grand-daughter remembers and he was known later in life as a breeder of orchids.  Ted stands as just one exemplar of the restorative and transformative power of gardening: this book explores many more.