Healing horticulture

Therapeutic programs reveal the curative powers of gardening


Hort professionals have long known the sensory benefits of a beautiful garden and landscape. Now horticulture as therapy proves a potent treatment for many patients.

Go into the garden and leave your troubles behind. For many of us, the garden has always been a place of calm retreat. In the garden we experience the simple pleasures and satisfaction that come from working with soil, sowing seeds, tending our plants and (barring visits from wildlife) harvesting the bounty. After working in the garden, we come away with an undeniable feeling of well-being. We’ve helped the garden, and somehow we know we’ve helped ourselves, too. Since Egyptian times, physicians have re-commended walks in the garden as therapy for patients. It’s no wonder — the pleasure of touching plants and feeling the soil seems to connect us with our past, allowing us to contemplate the present and dream of the future. People have always had a strong connection to the earth’s cycles and seasons. Horticulture is all around us — it’s universal.

Harvesting happiness

Gardeners may be harvesting more than they realize from their work in the garden. Recent research proves there are measurable and significant psychological and physiological effects on individuals as they interact with plants. In such diverse fields as medicine, psychology and horticulture, it is accepted that flowers stimulate more than just our senses of sight and smell. As Richard Mattson, director of the horticultural therapy program at Kansas State University points out, “Research on the people-plant connection has yielded only positive results — no matter if the plant life is a single flower on a desk or a group of trees in a botanic garden.” Research has backed up something humans know intuitively — that nature heals. Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University has done many studies that prove the benefits of horticulture for patients in medical facilities. One of his well-known studies compared patients who were recovering from gallbladder surgery. Patients with a view of trees had fewer complications, shorter post-operative stays, and needed less pain medication than those who had only a view of a brick wall. The Egyptians could have told him so.

The restorative quality of nature and the healing power of gardening have been recognized in the West for some time. In the early 19th century, for instance, an American physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, observed the benefit of working in the garden to ease mental illness. Since World War II, gardening has helped war veterans suffering post traumatic stress disorder, as it has proven to be a positive, meaningful activity that gives sufferers a chance to create life and not destroy it.

Therapy and healing

Horticultural therapy in North America was defined as a therapeutic tool in the 1970s. Building on that special connection between people and plants, horticultural therapy (HT) uses gardening and plant-related activities in professionally conducted programs to improve people’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social functioning.

A horticultural therapist uses plants and the natural world to promote healing in a non-threatening environment. Working with other therapists and medical professionals to meet an individual’s care plan, a horticultural therapist develops programs to help achieve specific treatment goals. We match a person’s interests, needs, skills and capabilities with an appropriate horticultural activity.

HT is used increasingly to help treat physical injuries, disease, mental illness, conditions associated with aging, social problems, and substance abuse. Because of the diversity of horticulture, there is great flexibility in how and where HT programs can be implemented. This means that nursing homes, long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, hospices, school and community gardens and even prisons are all suitable environments. HT programs can take place in a garden, conservatory, activity room — or even from a portable plant cart that can be wheeled from room to room.

Rehabilitation programs

Horticultural therapy programs are being developed in Canada as part of health care facilities and social programs. Mitchell Hewson, with a master’s degree in horticultural therapy, is considered one of Canada’s HT gurus. Hewson created the world-renowned horticultural therapy pro-gram at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont. Homewood is a 312-bed psychiatric hospital on 47 acres, including gardens with raised beds, forested walking trails and a living labyrinth. Homewood offers programs to help patients dealing with addiction and mental health issues, schizophrenia, eating disorders, depression, dementia and trauma. HT programs constitute an important part of many patients’ recoveries.

Mitchell has written one of the most-used HT reference books, Horticulture As Therapy: A Practical Guide to Using Horticulture as a Therapeutic Tool. In it, he explains that “Through horticulture tasks, the horticultural therapist can assess, promote and analyze the client’s physical functioning, cognition and perception, emotional status and social skills. Using horticulture as a tool to develop individual relationships with clients, the HT ensures that they participate in safe, achievable activities that stimulate awareness and creativity, while encouraging socializing and communication.” Rehabilitation facilities are finding that horticultural therapy is beneficial for people with brain injuries, mental illness and other physical or developmental disabilities. Gardening boosts dexterity and endurance, and can help to rebuild strength and mobility after an illness or injury.

There are other long-lasting benefits that can have a profound effect on a participant’s life. Christine Pollard, who also holds a master’s degree in horticultural therapy, began developing horticulture training and rehabilitative programs at Providence Farm on Vancouver Island. She has found that one of the most important benefits for participants in recovery is the development of interpersonal and leisure skills that are transferable to other areas of work, including the landscaping industry. Pollard has developed the Home Farm HT certificate program that is presently offered through a five-part program at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ont.

Accessible gardening

Senior care is an area where the use of HT has been expanding rapidly. Seniors entering nursing homes face radical and often extremely stressful changes in lifestyle that can adversely affect their health. HT works to alleviate the effects of this upheaval, whether the seniors are accomplished gardeners or have never gardened before in their lives.

Accessible gardens, designed with raised beds at many levels, as well as wheelchair-friendly ramps, can make an active HT program possible for people of all abilities. Adaptive devices and enabling tools are often used to overcome challenges of grip, mobility and strength. The right tool can help achieve the task without injury.

In Toronto, a successful and totally accessible garden exists at Sunnybrook Hospital Veteran’s Wing. This is a wonderful therapeutic garden created and managed by horticultural therapist Philip Spring. Designed so that the greenhouse and workspace are connected to the hospital, residents and visitors are able to enjoy gardening activities all year round.

HT creates meaningful work, not just ‘busy work,’ for clients in long-term care. It provides an opportunity to make decisions, and to maintain cognitive skills through gardening activities such as labelling a plant or reading a seed packet. The sensory stimulation in a garden may slow the effects of dementia, stimulate memory and assist in coping with chronic conditions, but HT offers seniors more than that — it brings companionship and helps new residents become part of their new community.

Hope-filled horticulture

A garden can also provide a sense of purpose and a reason to live. In a hospice setting, growing plants and tending a garden instills hope. In prisons, the opportunity to nurture a garden can help inmates learn to accept responsibility and fulfill obligations as they plant, water and maintain the garden. Gardening provides an opportunity to express creativity, develop a sense of achievement and perhaps, as on Providence Farm, learn long-lasting, life-changing vocational skills. A garden is a great place to share experiences with children or grandchildren. These ordinary interactions can instill self-confidence in young people that will last a lifetime. Better still, a garden is a safe place for discussion and a relaxed place to listen.

I think gardening is flower power — it ignores barriers and welcomes people in. Horticultural therapy joins different people and diverse settings, in a healing mission. Garden writer Ken Druse, in his book A Passion for Gardening, says, “Gardening truly is a lifetime recreation, one that can keep us fresh and on our toes (or on our knees) until the end of our days.” I feel the same way. I hope to keep gardening for life and then, well, you can just compost me at the end!

Margaret Nevett is a horticultural therapist and master gardener. For more information visit www.gardeningforlife.ca.