Have you ever said to yourself or others, “My garden is my therapy?” If you have noticed that you feel more relaxed and even rejuvenated after imbibing the beauty, fragrance, and even hard work in your garden, you are not alone! Gardening provides physical exercise, as well as a rewarding intellectual and emotional connection. When recognized on a personal level, it is not a stretch to see how people in a wide variety of care environments who are facing diverse personal challenges can benefit from professionally facilitated horticultural experiences as well.
The profession of horticultural therapy (HT) was formalized in the early 1970s, though people have sought out gardens and gardening activities for respite and health recovery well before then. The practice of horticultural therapy involves a plant-based activity, a horticultural therapist, client(s), and identified treatment goals and objectives. Either in a group or as individuals, clients participate in outdoor or indoor plant-based activities designed to address their particular health or wellness needs. For example, patients in a rehabilitation hospital can work on standing tolerance, dynamic balance, and coordination by transplanting tea herbs into a planter raised to a comfortable standing height. Later in the season, the patients are rewarded with familiar fragrances as they harvest the herbs to make herb teas and learn about the roles relaxation and stress management play in their recovery.
In another example, adults with brain injuries focus on pre-vocational skills, such as following increasingly complex directions, organizing their work space, and social skills needed for interacting appropriately with coworkers and supervisors, all while growing plants for a sale. They could be growing any plants for sale, but the sensory stimulation from herb plants increases motivation and inspires conversation with customers during the plant sale. I have noticed that HT sessions are often so enjoyable, even with focus and hard work, that participants can feel like they are taking a break from therapy. Yet, they realized real progress towards their goals and objectives.
HT programs are found in diverse organizations addressing a wide range of physical, social, emotional, vocational, and wellness needs for people of all ages. I’ve always said, “If you have seen one horticultural therapy program, you have seen ONE horticultural therapy program!” The flexibility of this field means that programs are unique and creatively designed to fit lots of different organizations–and not all are health care. Most focus on some type of improvement, recovery, or function maintenance ultimately for improved independence and quality of life. Quite often, horticultural therapists co-treat with other clinicians, such as recreation or occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, social workers, and vocational rehabilitation counselors.
The other by-product of horticultural therapy programs is an environment with lots of plants! Imagine the impact plants have on senior living facilities, psychiatric hospitals, correction and juvenile detention facilities, veterans hospitals, and community support programs for people coping with grief, chronic illness, or cancer. When walking by a “lemon” garden, filled with lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon basil, lemon thyme, lemon Pelargoniums (scented geraniums), lemon balm, and ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds, you can hear people talking about all of the different qualities of plants that are all lemon scented. Lemon has long been associated with uplifted feelings, good moods, refreshment, and even more alertness. These plants, and their fragrant qualities, can compliment treatment programs, as well as add appeal to the overall garden. It is safe to say, these plant-rich environments provide benefits to clients, families, visitors, and staff as well! Some programs also sell plants to staff or the public to practice social and vocational skills and raise funds for their programs at the same time.
I learned about horticultural therapy as a profession from my high school guidance counselor who had read about the field in a book. I never learned what book that was, but I have enjoyed a rewarding career of watching people discover the joy of growing and harvesting plants, making food, or other products from the fruits of their labor, while they have focused, struggled, delighted, and triumphed in their pursuit of self improvement. To learn more about horticultural therapy and how herbs are incorporated into the practice, join our webinar on February 14th, 2023, at 1pm Eastern. It is free for members and $7.50 for non members https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/
Photo Credits: 1) Planting an herb garden; 2) Gardening in a raised bed; 3) Potting up plants; 4) Mint cuttings in a baggie; 5) Lemon herbs in a small “container” garden. All photos courtesy of the author.
Karen Kennedy has been the Education Coordinator for the Herb Society of America since 2012. She coordinates and moderates monthly educational webinars, gives presentations, manages digital education programs, including three herbal fiction book clubs, and produces educational materials, such as the Herb of the Month program. Karen is a registered horticultural therapist (HT) with over 35 years of HT and wellness programming experience in health care, social service organizations, and public gardens. She has been a faculty member at the Horticultural Therapy Institute since 2002 and served on the board of The American Horticultural Therapy Association. Karen received the AHTA Rhea McCandliss Professional Service Award (1994) and the American Horticultural Society Horticultural Therapy Award (2009). She co-wrote/edited the foundational text, The Profession and Practice of Horticultural Therapy, published in 2019. Karen loves to garden, knit, drink tea, and is a big fan of her daughter’s soccer teams.