What she writes will resonate with any reader who has tended so much as a windowsill basil plant or suffered pain, loss or disconnection — which is frankly pretty well everybody. For me, the passages with the most impact concern grief. I now accept (although I would have hotly denied it at the time) that my decision to train as a professional gardener — not the most obvious career choice for a Cambridge history graduate — stemmed from a desire to escape the disabling, bottled-up grief I experienced after my mother’s early death. I wished once more to inhabit the summer afternoons of childhood, when I worked companionably alongside her in the garden.
This is a life-affirming study of the special pleasures of tending your garden and growing things, from planting the seed and watching it grow each day (“seeds have tomorrow ready-built into them”), to cropping home-grown vegetables and cooking delicious meals with them. Even the chores like weeding and watering have their unique joys: “watering is calming and strangely, when it is finished, you end up feeling refreshed, like the plants themselves.” Her heartfelt arguments for the benefits of nature and gardening for our mental health are informed by research in neuroscience and the evidence of patients who have improved through therapeutic gardening. It has been estimated that for every £1 spent by the NHS on gardening projects, £5 can be saved in reduced health costs. Gardening brings together the emotional, physical, social, vocational and spiritual aspects of life, boosting people’s mood and self-esteem.
This is not a book of effusions. It is attractive because quietly considered. It encourages us to garden – but gentle push never comes to shove. Stuart-Smith suggests that gardening, throughout history, has been civilising and about reciprocity – a mix of dream and slog. And there is no shortage of thinkers to stake her arguments. Freud was an avid orchid lover and cherished his garden in West Hampstead. Jung said: “We all need nourishment for our psyche. It is impossible to find such nourishment in urban tenements without a patch of green or a blossoming tree”, and Donald Winnicott recklessly climbed a tree towards the end of his life (to the alarm of his wife) to do some tree surgery and create a better view... Sue Stuart-Smith renders a very special service with this book. Let’s hope it reaches not only the converted but those who need it most.
This book, like a winding garden path, enjoys surprising us. At times the sheer scope of references seems a bit surreal with Jack in the Beanstalk joining Immanuel Kant, the green guerrilla movement, Montaigne and Monet. I quite enjoyed, however, its almost fierce unfashionableness: this is the opposite of a coffee table book. This may be a book about transformation, but it has nothing to do with garden makeovers.
The title of Stuart-Smith’s book is taken from what looks like gardening in the human brain. The brain’s neural networks are shaped and reworked throughout our lives. When this process was identified in the 1950s no one knew how it happened. Now it is attributed to special cells in the immune system, called microglial cells. They account for one in 10 cells in the brain, appear only a few days after conception, and are involved in how the brain grows and repairs itself from the very beginning. Like little gardeners, they maintain the health of the central nervous system, removing damaged neurons and infections.
A warning: this book is not an easy read. It is verbose and hops from subject to subject unaccountably. Still, that makes it like gardening, where you never know what will come up, and, like gardening, it is worth the effort.