How can horticultural therapy nourish your soul?
Horticultural therapy is a gentle, accessible modality that invites people to care for, and engage with nature. It is based on the activity of gardening, but with an added therapeutic focus which can range from teaching social interaction skills, to helping people regain movement. It can help to stimulate the mind, while providing relaxing benefits that come with being in a green space.
Gardening is known to provide multiple health benefits, such as reducing stress and improving quality of life. Tasks such as growing seedlings, propagating plants and even mowing the lawn are used in a non-invasive, supportive manner to help people to learn new skills, plan for the future, and learn to care and take responsibility for living organisms. For this reason, it is increasingly used in a variety of hospital settings, aged care and disability providers, schools and prisons. Many practitioners also have a background in other fields such as occupational therapy, counselling or social services.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy has been used in some form since the 19th century after Dr Benjamin Rush, the ‘Father of American Psychiatry’, documented the “positive effect working in the garden had on individuals with mental illness.” Its use in the 1940s and 1950s in the rehabilitation of war veterans helped it gain even more popularity.
In Australia, the Therapeutic Horticulture Australia is a national body that requires its full members to have qualifications in horticulture or allied health and social services at a Certificate 3 level, or a minimum of 400 hours of validated experience in horticultural therapy. It provides its members with continuing training, and access to information and a professional network.
Benefits of horticultural therapy
Horticultural therapy is easily integrated into any lifestyle or rehabilitation program, and is useful for anyone from a healthy person to people with impaired physical or mental health. As gardening requires physical activity, it is useful for people with limited mobility or those who seek to improve their motor skills. It has also been used to assist in the rehabilitation of those with acquired brain Injuries and to help people rebuild their lives after trauma, with reports that engaging in tasks in nature helped them to take their mind off the reality of their situation and start the healing process.
Older adults often report poorer quality of life, whether due to reduced social interaction, or increased health conditions. Horticultural therapy has been studied for use in the elderly, with encouraging results. A Singaporean study of older adults reported that a 24-week Horticultural Therapy program resulted in improved cognitive function and reduced anxiety, with these effects lasting up to six months after the completion of the program. The researchers suggested that an added dimension to the benefits of Horticultural Therapy was its ability to ‘encourage a waiting and nurturing attitude, offering a deep sense of purpose in the longer term’. Another study similarly reported that horticultural therapy reduced stress levels and increased relaxation in the elderly.
Horticultural therapy may also help to improve cognitive function, and this is supported by some recent evidence in this area. A 2019 meta-analysis of horticultural therapy in patients with dementia found that it reduced agitation levels and helped to alleviate negative emotions, which contributed to improved quality of life. Another meta-analysis of 10 non-randomised controlled trials conducted in 2020 determined that ‘horticultural therapy significantly improved cognitive function’. These positive effects were attributed to the social nature of the modality, which is known to help people with dementia maintain cognitive function. Horticultural therapy may also be a useful complementary therapy for those with mental illness, as a study found that it improved participants’ mental wellbeing, helped them to develop patience and to remain focused on tasks.
Its benefits also extend to children, with a study concluding that it may help primary school children improve emotional intelligence, as they had the opportunity to collaborate with others and share emotional experiences. Further, viewing plants was reported to activate the temporal lobe of the brain which functions in emotional expression. Some organisations also use horticultural therapy to support children with disabilities, or those who have experienced trauma.
Horticultural therapy may assist in relieving symptoms related to:
- Acquired brain injury (ABI)
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Balance, stability and coordination
- Communication and self-expression
- Concentration, focus and problem solving
- Confidence and self-esteem
- Dementia and alzheimer's
- Memory and cognitive function
- Mental health
- Mobility and movement
- Motivation and procrastination
- Muscle strain and injury
- PTSD and trauma
- Speech and language issues
- Sports performance
- Stress and tension
What to expect from a horticultural therapy session
Therapeutic horticulture is a hands-on modality, where you will be involved with and have responsibility for various gardening tasks or even woodcraft projects, depending on the program. This can include things such as harvesting vegetables, pruning shrubs, composting or weeding.
The programs all differ in length and aims, and if you attend a horticultural therapy program with a specific focus, you may be asked whether you have any goals. Your therapist can then help you to plan how you may reach this goal using horticultural activities. You can also expect to work alongside other people on garden maintenance tasks, as social interaction and engagement with other participants or instructors are a large feature of horticultural therapy programs.
You may experience more benefits if you are able to participate in horticultural therapy regularly. This will allow you to build connections with other attendees, as well as have the rewarding opportunity to see plants grow and gardening projects take shape throughout the changing seasons.
As with any complementary practice, please consult your medical professional before commencing horticultural therapy. If you have any concerns at all, also speak to therapist, who will be happy to address these and evaluate whether it is a suitable option for you.