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How a Positive Gardening Practice Can Build Self-Belief

Psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith on how to use gardening as a tool to build self-belief

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By House & Garden | January 27, 2024 | Gardens

In an extract from her new book, The Well Gardened Mind, psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith (wife of the celebrated garden designer Tom Stuart Smith) explains how gardening can be a tool to build greater self-belief.

When it comes to making things grow, the rewards that follow from small interventions can be disproportionately large. I feel almost ridiculously identified with our asparagus bed because it started life in my hands as a very small seed packet. For the same reason I experience a thrill when my auriculas pop into flower each spring. Auriculas are so mouth-wateringly delicious, with their boiled sweet colours and their icing sugar farina that they always give a sense of delight, but the feeling is intensified by knowing that I played a part in their making, and it is a form of magic that came home from the Chelsea Flower Show in a brown envelope.

Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. Photography Mark Lord.

Asparagus and auriculas, it is true, require patience and persistence, but sow a handful of pumpkin seeds and more likely than not, in autumn, those seeds will yield more than you can possibly eat. Nowhere in our garden is the marvel of nature’s powers of alteration more evident than in the crop of pumpkins that our compost heap yields each year and it all comes from a few seeds and a pile of waste. Gardening is more accessible than other creative endeavours, such as painting and music because you are halfway there before you start; the seed has all its potential within – the gardener simply helps unlock it.

The psychological significance of this came home to me on a visit to a prison gardening project when I interviewed a man called Samuel. He had been in and out of jail for much of the last thirty years, mainly for drug-related offences. With his thin grey hair and heavily creased cheeks he looked defeated by life and when he spoke of his family, I could see that his sense of shame and failure was crippling. Samuel knew he had let them down again and again and he felt they had lost all faith in his capacity to stay clean and turn his life around.

Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. Photography by Paul Wilkinson.

This time in jail had been different from his previous spells. There was a horticulture project within the grounds and having never gardened before, Samuel decided he would try something new. He told me about a phone conversation with his eighty-year-old mother that had taken place a few days earlier, soon after harvesting the squash he had helped grow in the garden. For the first time in decades, he had something good to tell her – something he was proud of. His mother reminisced with him about her own gardening days and they made a connection over the squash flowers that she had always loved: ‘It was a joy for her to hear and not be worried about me.’

Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. Photography Mark Lord. Photography Mattia Aquila. Photography by Paul Wilkinson.

Talking to Samuel, it seemed that everything about his past was stacked up against him, but the squash harvest was the first piece of tangible evidence he had that something in him might be able to change. As he put it: ‘If nothing changes, nothing changes; something’s got to give. But here, I’ve connected.’ The newfound sense of possibility he had discovered within the garden meant he had put his name down for a horticultural internship which he planned to start as soon as he was released.

Anyone new to gardening is invariably anxious about whether their plants will thrive. But when new life takes off and we witness a surge of growth, how empowered we feel! At the heart of this experience and how affirmed we can feel by it, there is, I think, a kind of illusion which hooks people into growing things.

If you are an experienced gardener, it is easy to forget the magic of surprise that forms the basis of the illusion. Image via Unsplash.

If you are an experienced gardener, it is easy to forget the magic of surprise that forms the basis of the illusion but I don’t think it ever entirely wears off. I caught a glimpse of it recently, in my husband Tom, when, just as he was about to give up on them, some tree peony seedlings sprouted from a tray he had sowed nearly three years before. With a grin on his face, as if he had done something really clever, he said: ‘It just shows, it’s always worth waiting.’

In Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature, he recounts a childhood memory in which it is possible to see the illusion in action. Pollan is four years old. He is in the family garden, hiding in the bushes. As he pokes around, he catches sight of a ‘stippled green football sitting in a tangle of vines and broad leaves’. It is a watermelon. The feeling, he writes, ‘is one of finding treasure’ but it is more than that as he explains: ‘Then I make the big connection between this melon and a seed I planted, or at least spit out and buried, months before: I made this happen. For a moment I’m torn between leaving the melon to ripen and the surging desire to publicise my achievement: Mom has got to see this. So I break the cord attaching the melon to the vine, cradle it in my arms and run for the house, screaming my head off the whole way.’ The watermelon ‘weighs a ton’ and what happens next feels like one of life’s minor tragedies. Just as he reaches the back steps, he loses his balance and as the melon hits the ground, it explodes.

Yes, a positive gardening practice helps build self-belief. Photography by Mattia Aquila.

The words that stood out to me when I read this passage were ‘I made this happen’. Pollan’s boyish conviction and surge of pride is striking and is something we can all feel, if we are lucky. Such precious moments matter in adult life as well as in childhood and that feeling is present in the little boy Pollan, racing towards the house, just as it is in Samuel’s phone call from prison to his mother. Importantly, in terms of how influential these kind of moments can be, Pollan believes the thrill he felt on discovering that he had inadvertently grown a watermelon has motivated much of his subsequent gardening life.

The psychoanalyst Marion Milner discovered the creative power of illusion when she was teaching herself to paint, a process she wrote about in a book entitled On Not Being Able to Paint. Donald Winnicott, who believed in the importance of creativity throughout life, developed Milner’s thinking further. With an imaginative leap of understanding, he came to the conclusion that not only is a baby the centre of its own world, it also feels it has created its world. So, when a mother responds to a baby in the very same moment or soon after the feeling of wanting her arises, the baby may fleetingly feel that he or she has created the mother rather than the other way round – such is the scope of infantile omnipotence!

Making things grow has a kind of mystery to it and we can claim some of that mystery for ourselves. Image via Unsplash.

Although we can never access the subjective experience of the earliest phase of life to confirm this idea or not, we can observe how much small children like to believe they are more powerful than they actually are. This illusion needs to be shattered very gently because it forms the basis of self-belief. Too much, too soon, is not a good thing because the child’s sense of smallness and vulnerability can then be crushing. That doesn’t mean illusion needs to be overtly encouraged either, just fostered a little. We see it in action in children’s imaginary games that offset their feelings of powerlessness and allow them to experience ‘the joy in being a cause’. None of this is restricted to childhood. Winnicott and Milner’s insight was that many of our most enriching and inspiring experiences throughout life involve a similar sense of creative illusion.

In the husbandry of seeds and the interaction between mind and nature that is involved, we can experience something of this illusion. Making things grow has a kind of mystery to it and we can claim some of that mystery for ourselves. We even have a name for the illusion that I am describing, for it is that human talent for growing that we call ‘green fingers’. This illusion, is, I think, central to the vital connection that exists between people and plants and contributes to the enormous satisfaction we derive from making things happen and the joy we can feel in being a cause.

This is an extract from The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Sue Stuart-Smith, published by William Collins.