The Good Earth

Horticultural therapy turns the garden into a place of healing.

By Claire Sykes

April 2009


Trees and weeds, flowers and ferns, fungi and cacti—plants surround us no matter where we live. Without them, we couldn’t breathe or eat, or make medicines and dyes. But even the seemingly uncomplicated act of working with plants—from pruning backyard plots to filling windowsill pots—can be healing all on its own.

Enter horticultural therapy (HT). This treatment uses gardening and related activities to help clients meet their therapeutic or rehabilitative goals, whether it’s to mend torn ligaments, hone healthy work habits or move through grief. Maybe you prize your green thumb, or feel that you’re all thumbs in a garden plot. Either way, proponents of this therapeutic practice say you can benefit from making contact with plants and earth in a structured, guided way.

Within the green, peaceful world of plants, gardening allows you to attune yourself to the rhythms and cycles of nature. “Working with plants can be therapeutic because it connects you with nature, and that can be both relaxing and rejuvenating,” says Rebecca Haller, a horticultural therapist since 1978 and director of the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver, Colorado (www.htinstitute.org). She is also the co-author of Horticultural Therapy Methods (The Haworth Press).


No HT licensing or certification requirements exist at the present time, so anyone can wear the title of horticultural therapist. But the true professionals insist on the proper training, with either a four-year university degree in horticultural therapy, concentration or individual coursework in the field or a certificate program that’s been accredited by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA, www.ahta.org).

Goals and Programs

Because it embraces such a diverse range of activities—from building indoor terraniums to digging garden plots—horticultural therapy reaches clients of all ages and social backgrounds, and of all physical, cognitive, psychological and social capabilities. Haller says that a therapist will first determine the client’s goals. To do so HT professionals often work with other practitioners, including mental health specialists, social workers and special-education teachers, as well as with occupational, vocational and recreational therapists.

The next step is to come up with a treatment program; digging in dirt may seem simple, but HT can be deceptively complex. “There’s a lot of skill involved in how you structure an activity,” says Haller. “What plants? What tasks? Do you include other people? What’s the time frame? How much choice do you give the person? This all takes professional judgment.” Each individual’s HT experience is

different, depending on his or her situation. The idea is to support the client while contact with the garden does its healing work.

A Balm to the Body

Horticultural therapy can give you the motivation and skills you need to recover from a physical injury. Even if all you do is scoop soil into a flowerpot, “the task may get you to use your hands in a way you might not have before,” explains Mary Beth Miller, horticultural therapist and founder of Gardening for Good in Little Compton, Rhode Island (www.gardening4good.org). Miller speaks from experience: When cancer limited her ability to use of one her legs, working in the garden soon got her walking on her own.

Sharpened eye-hand coordination and improved immune response, along with reductions in both stress levels and heart rate, are among the other physical benefits of HT, according to the AHTA.

Research indicates that horticultural therapy can also help improve attention, concentration and memory. In one study, participation in horticulture classes led residents of an assisted living facility to feel healthier and happier; in another, horticultural therapy increased the amount of social interchange between elderly adults and preschool children (HortTechnology 10-12/08, 1-3/00). HT is especially useful for people who have mental development issues; working with plants can help them cultivate important employment-related skills, such as showing up in the garden on time, pointing the hose at the right plants and recalling where they buried those spring bulbs.

Becoming Well-Grounded

Just being in a garden can calm and relax someone who might be prone to agitation. Haller recounts her horticultural therapy work with a person who, she says, “was normally verbally threatening to others, but not in the greenhouse. There, I saw a totally different person who had control of his anger and outbursts.”

What could be more emotionally grounding than kneeling on the fragrant earth, your head bowed, and pushing your own flesh into the gently yielding dirt? Sprinkling seeds and pulling weeds can also alleviate emotional stress and anxiety.

Or suppose you’re suffering from depression. “To do something that you’re familiar with, like gardening, can give you self-worth and make you feel part of things again,” explains Miller. “It can give you something to look forward to because you can see things actually grow.”

Horticultural therapy can provide a helpful sense of perspective under somber circumstances. When chemotherapy robbed Miller of her hair, she “looked at it like trees that lose their leaves.” She knew that her locks would grow, just like new leaves. Gardening has also helped her learn to do what all living beings, not just plants, must do in order to survive and thrive—and that’s adapt.

While weeding a row of tomatoes, you and the horticultural therapist may talk about how you should let go of the people and things in your life that no longer serve you, or how you could stand to unclutter your days and take on less.

But what if, no matter how much effort you put into the garden, your plants die? “That’s a lesson, too—that not everything lives, even if you take care of it. It’s a reminder of the cycle of life,” says Miller. What’s more, even dead plants live on, as compost to nurture new life in the future.

Plants prosper when given the right nutrients and care. We humans aren’t much different. Says Haller, “In the horticultural therapy setting, I’ve seen people thrive in ways they hadn’t in a regular counseling setting.”

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