Horticultural Therapy to the Rescue - Modern Farmer

Horticultural Therapy to the Rescue

We’ve unpacked the practice that uses gardening as rehabilitation.

Go ahead, plant a seed and watch it grow.
Photography by ChaiyonS021 on Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that starting a garden has recently become a popular hobby. Many people shut inside their homes are simply looking to fill their time, while others are hoping to grow their own food in the fear that one day we might face food shortages. 

But is there more to it than that? Horticultural therapists say so. 

This group of certified professionals tap into the mental and physical health benefits of gardening and apply them to clients in a wide variety of settings such as hospitals, schools, correctional facilities and retirement homes.  The American Horticultural Therapy Association defines the practice as “the engagement of a client in horticultural activities facilitated by a trained therapist to achieve specific and documented treatment goals.” 

Several studies have reported a wide range of positive impacts. Gardening can help reduce your blood pressure and improve sleep. Recent research from Princeton University found that the emotional well-being people were experiencing from gardening was similar to the fuzzy feelings you get from activities such as biking, walking or eating at a restaurant.  It also showed that those who grew their own food, as opposed to ornamental gardens, expressed higher levels of happiness. 

Joel Flagler, a horticultural therapist and professor at Rutgers University has been working in the field for 40 years. Flagler’s clients have typically included veterans suffering from PTSD, the elderly and people with mental disabilities. He says that anyone could benefit from getting their hands a little dirty, especially in these uncertain times, when nearly half of Americans have said the pandemic has worsened their mental health. “Plants don’t care who you are. They don’t discriminate, they don’t judge,” Flagler says. 

As a horticulture therapist, Flagler works with patients to determine their goals and then tailors the types of plants and activities in the garden to help meet their needs. With dementia patients, he creates a plan that involves a lot of repetition and introducing easy plant names. With clients who suffer from PTSD, the focus would be on creating a calm non-threatening environment, using plants or vegetables they find appealing and offering simple planting activities that are easy to complete and bring gratification.  

The therapeutic benefits of being out in the garden have been documented for hundreds of years. American hospitals started using horticultural therapy to help patients rehabilitate in the 19th century. In 1812, a Pennsylvania physician called Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote about how his patients who worked in gardens would recover faster from manic syndrome. By 1879, the Friends Hospital in Philadelphia became the first hospital in the country to build a greenhouse used for patient rehabilitation. Today, the practice of horticultural therapy is widely employed across the US, and post-secondary institutions have offered education in the field since the 1970’s. 

Home gardening is only a small piece of horticulture therapy, but Flagler has a few tips for those looking to maximize on benefits. First, there is no formula for the right garden. Grow what you want, he says, and what appeals to you. Second, don’t be afraid to add additional features like a fountain or wind chimes to harness the wind, which will contribute to a multi-sensory experience, he says. 

“Connecting the person and the plant—there’s nothing else like it. It’s also part of what I like to call an ancient bond,” he says.  “The timing is right. Thank god this pandemic didn’t hit us as we were going into the winter, because now at least we have the garden. We have outside, we have nature and nature can be so healing.”

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