The therapeutic power of gardening

Can anxious minds find solace working with plants?

You can grow these!
Yum! You can grow these too. pic: Markus Spiske


In “The Well-Gardened Mind,” Sue Stuart-Smith describes the garden of the house, in North London, where the infamous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud spent the final year of his life.

In the summer of 1938, he fled Vienna with his wife, forced to leave behind four sisters, who later died in concentration camps. In September, he moved into 20 Maresfield Gardens, in Hampstead—currently the Freud Museum.

Having lived for decades in an apartment building in Vienna, Freud now had his first private garden. Stuart-Smith writes of how Freud was eager to see it change through the seasons.

His son Ernst, an architect, installed French windows in his father’s study to allow easy access outside, and on the rear of the house, he attached a light-filled loggia—an indoor-outdoor space where one could be suspended between worlds.

Freud had spent years battling oral cancer, and in the months that followed his condition grew worse. By the early summer of 1939, he was sleeping much of the time, sometimes outdoors in a swing bed, which had been set up in a sheltered corner.

Freud’s study, containing his desk and analytic couch, was converted into a sickroom with a bed, from which he could look onto the greenery in the yard. He died on September 23, 1939, a year after moving in. Stuart-Smith writes, “When life forecloses on us, the lack of a sense of a future is the hardest thing to deal with.”

Many people, when faced with their own mortality or that of their loved ones, become more attuned to the natural world.

This is evidence not just of a garden’s power to distract and inspire but of its power to console through its cyclical replenishment.

The northern hemisphere spring and summer of 2020 have been shadowed by death—not just by the loss of hundreds of thousands of people to covid-19 but by the loss of our ordinary way of life.

Gardening has been a solace to so many, Sue Stuart-Smith suggests because it invokes the prospect of some kind of future, however uncertain and unpredictable it may be.

When the future seems either very bleak or people are too depressed to imagine one, gardening gives you a toehold in the future she said.

It can also help reconcile us to the inevitability of our demise. At the Barn garden, Tom Stuart-Smith explains that every spring, when the bulbs of fawn lilies and summer snowflakes are flowering and the meadow is full of narcissus, he goes around the garden with a notebook, to make plans about where to add things in the autumn.

“I think a lot about next year, but I also think, absolutely, about what it’s going to be like when I am dead,” he said. The future promised by a garden may not always be ours to enjoy, but a future there will be, with or without us in it.