Horticulture: Therapy for all, a prescription for some By Rita Lynn

Did you ever wonder why so many fabrics used in our homes and for our clothing have plant and flower patterns?  Have you had the opportunity to take advantage of the natural environments that fine hotels build, at great expense, in their indoor public spaces?  Are you right now perusing seed catalogs and yearning for gardening weather to return?  We humans appear to be programmed to enjoy green, living environments.

Shade Garden.JPG

As early as 2000 B.C., stressed monarchs were prescribed walks in their gardens to calm their senses.  Records from around 500 B.C. indicate that Persians created gardens that stimulated all the senses by incorporating visual beauty, appealing fragrances, cooling temperatures, and music in the form of flowing water.  Now leap forward to current times.  We have come to recognize a number of positive effects when we engage in activities related to horticulture.


Gardening keeps us active.  It is easier for many of us to work off the suggested weekly amount of exercise in our gardens than it is to adhere to an aerobics routine.  In fact, we’re likely to spend even more than the suggested amount of time, working both our upper and lower bodies, without even realizing we’re doing so.  In turn, we can lower our blood pressure, burn calories, and address all those other factors that help stave off such modern banes as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  Meanwhile, we are increasing strength, stamina, and flexibility, and we are out in the sun (being sure to use sunscreen to block harmful rays), allowing our bodies to absorb vitamin D.  We can help children develop a sense of responsibility when we give them seeds and a garden patch, and they will be more likely to try vegetables they have helped grow and harvest, than the ones that just appear on their plates from the grocery store.


We know there are psychological benefits as well.  Although even a few plants on the patio can keep us from being self-centered and self-absorbed, a garden also allows us to escape from the bustle of our lives and rest in the simple beauty and in the soothingly rhythmic qualities of growing things.  In the garden, we can focus on the here and now instead of the worries and stresses of the past and future.  Or we can vent our anger by hoeing, chopping, tamping, and all those more rigorous tasks a garden might require.


Simply breathing outdoor air has been shown to have benefits.  Studies have suggested that bacteria that live in soil, M. vaccae, can produce increased serotonin levels in humans.  Thus, when we stir up these bacteria by “playing in the dirt” of our gardens, or even when we just go outside and breathe the air around us, we might experience reduced anxiety and a lighter mood.


The benefits can go on and on.  Better sleep after our exercise outdoors, increased hand strength, improved self-esteem, better nutrition through eating the healthy produce we harvest and increased social contact are all listed as positive impacts of gardening.  Gardening can also influence the family budget.  The produce raised decreases the food bill, and a pleasantly landscaped lot can increase the value of our homes.

Recently, researchers have worked to quantify the benefits of engaging in horticultural activities.  A 2006 study demonstrated that gardening could lower the risk of dementia, and people with dementia have shown reduced agitation and improved cognition and sleep patterns.  In general, studies in several areas have statistically demonstrated that therapy in horticulture settings can reduce pain and stress, improve attention, decrease the use of medications, and reduce falls.  For example, one study had subjects participate in a stressful activity followed either by 30 minutes of indoor reading or 30 minutes of gardening.  Both groups reported reduced stress, but the group who gardened experienced a significantly greater level of stress relief.



With all these experienced and even statistically supported benefits of gardening, it seems as if it is as good as therapy.  Well, way back in 1812, Dr. Benjamin Rush, often called the father of American Psychiatry, published a book, Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon Diseases of the Mind.  In it, Dr. Rush noted that one of the activities that separated those who recovered from “mania” from those who did not, was “digging in a garden.” (Detweiler et al. article)  Because of that, the hospital grounds provided paths through landscaped areas for patient wandering.  Eventually, psychiatric hospitals all over the United States included horticultural activities for their clients.


Hospitals also found gardening and agricultural activities benefited veterans returning from WWI.  Consequently, occupational and recreational therapists began using horticulture activities as mental health treatment modalities.  Later, in 1959, a greenhouse was built at the Rusk Institute in New York City to go beyond addressing psychiatric issues, to assisting in diagnosis and physical rehabilitation.  Finally, in 1972, the Menninger Foundation and the Horticulture Department at the University of Kansas worked together to train students studying in the mental health field.  This, then, was the first Horticulture Therapy (HT) curriculum in the United States.

Since that time, the use of HT has grown to include treatment for a wide range of diagnoses and has been accepted as an effective therapeutic modality in rehabilitation, vocational and community settings.  HT’s can be found working in a wide range of places.  These include hospitals, programs for people with developmental impairments, adult day treatment facilities, special education schools, programs for at-risk youth, hospice programs, and community and public gardens.


Professionals with degrees in related fields, who have a special interest in horticulture as a modality, can enroll in programs leading to a certificate in HT.  Those who have completed bachelor’s degrees can also work toward registration by the American Horticultural Therapy Association.  Included in the requirements for this recognition is a 480-hour internship in horticultural therapy as a treatment modality.

As you see, there are many reasons why our interest and involvement in gardening and other plant-related pursuits are good for us.  You can legitimately call it therapy!  So pick up those seed catalogs and dream away.  That alone is an act of faith that the world around us will again be green and full of beautiful growing things.



What are the physical and mental benefits of gardening?www.msue.anr.msu.edu/news/what_are_the_physical_and_mental_benefits_of_gardening

5 surprising ways gardening improves your health,” www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/5-surprising-ways-gardening-improves-your-health

What is the evidence to support the use of therapeutic gardens for the elderly?” Mark B. Detweiler et al., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3372556/

Petal power: why is gardening so goo for our mental health?www.psychologytoday.com/blog/worry-and-panic/2015/petal-power-why-is-gardening-so-goo-for-our-mental-health

Horticultural Therapy,” www.ahta.org/history-of-horticultural-therapy

Professional registration with the American Horticultural Therapy Association,” www.ahta.org/professional-registration

Horticultural therapy as a career,” www.ahta.org/a-career-in-horticultural-therapy

Horticultural therapy careers,” www.htinstitute.org/horticultural-therapy-careers


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