Most gardeners would prefer to be busy in the garden, rather than think about how tilling the soil and growing plants affects the mind. But as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I cannot resist reflecting on these things. This is partly because of my own gardening experiences but also because there is a renewal of interest in horticultural therapy.
Recent research carried out by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) showed that more than a third of people questioned (39 per cent) said that being in a garden makes them feel healthier, while 79 per cent believe that access to a garden is essential for quality of life. The survey coincides with the NGS Festival Weekend (June 7-8) when more than 350 gardens will be open, with proceeds to charity.
I turn to gardening as a way of calming my mind, a kind of decompressing after a hard week in the consulting room. The jangle of competing thoughts inside my head somehow clears and settles as the weed bucket fills up, and ideas that are barely formed take shape. A session in the garden can leave you feeling dead on your feet, but strangely renewed inside.
A survey showed that nearly four-fifths of people believe a garden is essential to quality of life (GETTY IMAGES)
In the plant world, regeneration is a matter of course, but psychological repair does not come so naturally to us. While we have an innate capacity to form strong attachments, we are less well equipped to deal with trauma and loss. In our secular and consumerist world, we have lost touch with many of the rituals that can help us navigate our way through life. Gardening is a form of ritual; as well as creating beauty around us, it works within our minds, as a symbolic act.
One of the things that set me thinking about gardening and the mind was a patient of mine who suffered from severe, recurrent depression. In her childhood she experienced emotional neglect and violent abuse and as an adult had great difficulty in forming positive relationships. She started to feel that her life was blighted. The discovery of gardening in her 40s made a huge difference to her. She told me, with conviction: "It is the only time I feel I am good."
What did she mean by this feeling of goodness? Could it be linked to the perception of gardening as a virtuous activity? I think it is more than that, and reflects a deeper kind of change, linked to the discovery of being able to make things grow. Gardening was not a cure for her, but it gave her a source of stability and self-worth.
Plants are much less frightening and challenging than people, so a garden may be an accessible way of reconnecting with our life-giving impulses. Background noise falls away and you can escape from other people's thoughts and judgments, so that within a garden there is, perhaps, more freedom to feel good about yourself. I think this relief from the interpersonal might, paradoxically, be a way of reconnecting with our humanity.
In a garden, you can escape other people's judgement (GETTY IMAGES)
The peacefulness of gardens and gardening arises partly through this escape from other people. As Freud said: "Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts." But when it comes to growing things, for all its solace, this world of plants can feel mysterious and intimidating to an outsider. Anyone new to gardening is invariably anxious they won't have "green fingers".
But, when we do make this discovery, what a feeling we have of finding treasure. I have come to think that there is a particular kind of "illusion" at work, which is part of what hooks people to gardening. It certainly was the case for me.
What I am talking about involves the very beginnings: how plants grow from seed. I am almost ridiculously proud of our asparagus bed because it started life in my hands, as a packet of seed. If you are a very seasoned gardener it is easy to forget the magic of surprise that forms the basis of this illusion, although I recently caught a glimpse of it in my garden designer husband, Tom, when some tree peony seedlings sprouted after three years, just as he was about to give up.
The idea of illusion comes from the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. It is central to his account of how a baby relates to the earliest environment. When a baby wants something enough to conjure it up in the imagination, and when this coincides with what happens in reality, the illusion for the baby is of having made it happen.
Winnicott believed such moments foster a sense of self-belief which helps us bear the disappointments and harshness of reality.
Private view: Sue Stuart-Smith with her husband Tom; gardening together at home sparked Sue’s interest in horticultural therapy (MMGI/MARIANNE MAJERUS)
In the husbandry of seeds and the interaction between mind and nature that follows, we can experience something of this. Making things grow has a kind of mystery to it and we can claim some of that mystery for ourselves. I like to think this green-fingers illusion can act as a psychological growth factor and help counteract a sense of impotence that overcomes all of us at times, but particularly after trauma or mental breakdown.
This illusion can work both ways. If your first foray into growing from seed isn't successful, it can be more than disheartening. That's why it is so important for children to start with easy sunflowers or radishes. In truth, most of us have green fingers, given the right context in which to make the discovery.
Last year, I visited Growing Space, a mental health recovery project in Wales. Here, new arrivals start working in the most secluded parts of the garden. When you enter a walled garden, you immediately feel you are in a warmer, protected space. This is important in terms of recovery, because when you feel safe you can let your defences down and it is only then that you can begin to allow new experiences in.
Another project, Grow2Grow at Commonwork in Kent, is for people aged from 14 to 24 with serious behavioural or mental health problems, including psychosis. Many have been excluded from school. The food they grow is sold to local restaurants; they also cook and eat together. At the end of the two-year programme, which they attend two days a week, an impressive 80 per cent of them are helped into education or work.
Some of the therapeutic power of gardening may arise from the element of aggression that is involved, as well as care. There are times when I enjoy unleashing my secateurs, and the great thing about destructiveness in the garden is that it can all be in the service of growth – if you don't cut back the plants, you will be overrun by them.
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham's garden is "desolate and neglected". But, by the end of the novel, Pip realises how "in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences".
If only she had got the secateurs out. All her vengeance could have gone into transforming that garden.
*Sue Stuart-Smith's book The Well Gardened Mind will be published by HarperCollins in 2016
For more about the NGS Festival Weekend (June 7-8), visit ngs.org.uk Many organisations, national and local, use horticultural therapy as part of a treatment programme for disadvantaged groups. Here is a range:
Growing Space Based in Wales, this new project does not yet have a website (01633 810718).
Thrive A national charity whose aim is to enable positive change in the lives of disabled and disadvantaged people through the use of gardening (020 7720 2212; thrive.org.uk).
Greenfingers Charity dedicated to providing gardens for children, siblings and families who use hospices around the UK (01494 674749; greenfingers charity.org.uk).
Help for Heroes Charity dedicated to the support of ex-servicemen and women, includes horticultural therapy as part of its programme (01980 846459; helpforheroes.org.uk).
Gardening Leave Charity dedicated to the support of ex-servicemen and women (01292 521444; gardeningleave.org)