Vital link between gardening and wellbeing

Sue Stuart-Smith, an English psychiatrist, begins a long and thoughtful exploration of gardening’s amazing connection with human wellbeing with a story about her grandfather, whose brutal treatment as a Turkish prisoner during World War I left him a shell of the young man who joined the Royal Navy early in the war. So malnourished that he weighed just 80 pounds when he made his way back home, doctors said he likely only had a few months to live.

As Stuart-Smith tells it, her grandfather’s yearslong physical and mental recovery begins with a horticulture program that was organized with the “aim of rehabilitating ex-servicemen who had been damaged by the conflict.”

Stuart-Smith continues in her 2020 publication, The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, to cast gardening specifically and exposure to nature more generally in a central role in scores of stories that today we might say called for trauma-informed care – involving war, mental illness, social isolation, big American prisons and yes, even in urban schools serving poor communities (in England). Time and again, opportunities to spend time in soothing environments, to nurture living things and to work hands in soil seem to support troubled people in getting their feet on the ground.

“Over the course of evolution,” Stuart-Smith explains, “we 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.”

Reflecting the experience of a mental health professional and a physician steeped in the science of how the brain functions, Stuart-Smith is compelling when she writes, “One of the strongest findings in research across the last few decades has been the extent to which gardening boosts mood and self-esteem and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

At a time when people with professional interest in healthy development of children, from public school educators to the U.S. surgeon general, are expressing grave concern about childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety levels, Stuart-Smith offers urgently important insight. Our tiny school gardening program recognizes the value of getting kids outdoors. The local school district, which does occasionally talk about trauma-informed care? College and university teacher training programs? The state and federal education departments?

Well, not that we have noticed.

We have been waving around Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, every chance we get, trying to make the case that the school world would do itself an enormous favor by embracing its central tenet – that more exposure to nature would do so much good for people, and certainly including young people. Stuart-Smith’s work is the natural bookend to this masterpiece.

Stuart-Smith focuses on gardening, while Louv, a journalist, emphasizes being outdoors. They draw on different personal experiences and different research. But they reinforce one another wonderfully in explaining that human beings are programmed by evolution to spend so much more time outdoors and amid nature than they typically do now. And they would be healthier, socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically, if they had more contact with nature today.

This isn’t about the Covid-19 pandemic. Both were written before most of us knew word coronavirus. This isn’t about handheld devices with alluring screens, though both authors recognize today’s technology separates us from nature more than ever. This is more about the electric lightbulb and industrial production of food and clothing and shelter, all of which sent us indoors more than ever before.

Shouldn’t educators and others responsible for the care and nurturing of our you be thinking about gardening’s amazing connection with human wellbeing? We think so.

 – Bill Stoneman

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