The well-gardened mind

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER, 20 Mark and Ben (his son) Cullen are seen in the Star studio for logo photos. The two will be co-writing the weekly Urban Growth column in Homes & Condos. September, 20 2017

by Mark and Ben Cullen

Do you think of gardening as outdoor housework? We all know someone who approaches gardening this way.

Then there are the rest of us. We see the experience in our garden or on our condo balcony as an opportunity to engage with nature without accessing the wild of a ravine or forest. We are gardeners, and the garden is a place between a full-on experience with nature and our sanitized home or office.

This idea is explored in detail in the new book “The Well-Gardened Mind, The Restorative Power of Nature” by Sue Stuart-Smith. A deep dive into the meaning of gardens, both in an active sense of gardening, and the passive experience we have while sitting on a bench surveying a view of the garden.

Early in the book, Stuart-Smith explores how the physical actions of gardening: digging, planting and nurturing connects with our head. She calls this “freeing of your mind by engaging your hands”, though the activity of using your hands in the garden is different from other hand activities like painting art or sculpting as we connect with the soil and plants. “Caring for the garden is nurturing, calming and invigorating” she says. Not only do plants grow, but so do we.

She points out that gardening “allows our inner world and our outer world to coexist”, for our minds to connect to the natural world in which we live, rather than the one indoors which is dominated by electronics.

Gardening can only happen with a gardener. That is anyone who shapes space by investing in plants and their ancillary supports including pots, soil, and water. We are not controlling nature so much as partnering with her to create a place of beauty and productivity. By planting many flowering specimens in our garden, we attract pollinators, bees and birds that have a symbiotic relationship with plants, the pollinator giving fertility to the plant and the flower giving sustenance to the pollinator. The gardener is an enabler.

There was a time, after the Second World War, when gardeners attempted to control nature with chemicals. That is changing. Stuart-Smith draws a helpful comparison between child rearing and gardening. In neither case are we in control of growth but we do foster a certain direction that the child and garden take over time. We contribute our efforts and hope for the best.

Hope is a classic theme in “The Well-Gardened Mind”. A chapter is devoted to the lessons that we have learned from war as it relates to gardening. Before we knew about PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, it was generally understood that the more time a convalescing soldier spent in a garden or greenhouse, the faster their recovery, both physical and mental. The author reminds us that there are horticultural metaphors for war. Think of the meaning behind the Flanders poppy (the cost of war) and the olive branch (the value of peace). Horticulture touches us in so many ways.

According to Stuart-Smith, in penitentiaries where inmates are given access to a garden, there has been no recorded escape attempts. The point is that all humans, no matter how hopeless their situation, can relate to the life-giving inspiration of a garden. Stuart-Smith, “When we plant a seed, we sow a narrative of hope”. For those of us who devote our livelihood to gardening and landscaping, this could become our mantra.

This is a textbook that explores the effects of gardening on the human psyche. Frankly, it may not be for everyone. But if you have ever wondered how gardening effects us as humans, it may be for you.

It is loaded with lessons about our work as enablers of natural beauty and stewards of the environment. “Tending a garden can become an attitude toward life. In a world that is increasingly dominated by technology and consumption, gardening puts us in a direct relationship with the reality of how life is generated and sustained and how fragile and fleeting it can be. Now, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves that first and foremost, we are creatures of the earth.” A hopeful message.

The Well-Gardened Mind
The restorative power of nature.
By Sue Stuart-Smith
Scribner ISNB 978-1-4767-9446-4

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.