What is Horticultural Therapy?

Horticultural therapy uses plants and the natural world to improve social, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. It may include working outside, participating in carefully-planned activities or simply spending time in a tranquil outdoor space. It may also include indoor activities for clients who have limited mobility or find it difficult to spend a lot of time outdoors. Horticultural therapy is suitable for people of all ages and abilities.

The relationship between spending time in the garden, well-being, and healing has been recognised since ancient times. The Persians created walled gardens to keep out the chaos of everyday life, and were familiar with the therapeutic benefits of gardens. The Greeks also had a special love for gardens. Pliny the Elder’s famous, poetic letters contained many references to his beloved gardens:

Here and there little obelisks rise, mixed alternately with apple trees. Then suddenly, in the midst of this elegant regularity, you are surprised with an imitation of the negligent beauties of rural nature. In the centre is a spot surrounded with a knot of dwarf plane trees. Beyond these are clumps of the smooth and twisting acanthus…

More recently, a number of therapeutic approaches have harnessed the healing power of human interaction with nature, from hospital farms and healing gardens to the Camphill communities, where work on the land is seen as both an essential contribution to the community and a healing process for the individual. As long ago as 1768 Benjamin Rush wrote that digging in the soil had a curative effect on the mentally ill, and by 1806 Spanish hospitals were also advocating this form of treatment. In 1879 the Pennsylvania Friends Asylum for the Insane funded a greenhouse for residents’ enjoyment. By the early 1900s doctors at the Meninger Clinic in Kansas reported that gardening widened their patients’ world, increased their enjoyment, improved their motor skills, promoted socialisation and built their self-esteem. However, it was not until the 1950s that this type of therapy became widely accepted.

Today, horticultural therapy is more formalised. It is seen as an effective way of involving people in their own healing process. Research is confirming something that many people have long understood – interacting with plants affects us on a multitude of levels. Studies show that simply looking at plants can cause our blood pressure to drop, our skin to warm, and our muscles to relax. Physical healing is promoted, as is psychological healing. When psychiatric patients see flowering plants at mealtimes, their morale improves, they eat better, they talk to each other more and they stay at the table longer.

Social and therapeutic horticulture is the process by which individuals may develop well-being using plants and horticulture. This is achieved by active or passive involvement.

(GrowthPoint issue 79, Autumn, 1999)

Horticultural therapy may take many forms, from informal and casual to highly organised, from passive (such as enjoying a sensory garden) to active (becoming involved in the garden on a practical level). It often has educational elements and may be a means through which to develop and enhance key life skills. Horticultural therapy is now used in many hospitals, nursing homes, and community, rehabilitative and mental health situations. It may be of special benefit to children, the elderly, and people living with physical or mental challenges.