Horticultural therapists are also sometimes known as social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) practitioners. They use gardening, plants and horticulture as a medium for healing, supporting and rehabilitating clients. Horticultural therapists work with a wide range of people, including those recovering from illness, people with learning and behavioural difficulties and people with mental ill health issues such as depression or dementia.
Horticultural therapy is a broad field covering many different roles, ranging from projects supporting clients recovering from addiction to creating healing garden spaces for care homes; from therapeutic gardens for children to horticultural rehabilitation projects. Projects may be located on allotments, in community gardens or at nurseries, hospitals and prisons and are often run by a combination of paid staff and volunteers. Horticultural therapy is used in social, vocational and therapy programmes, providing outdoor activity and physical exercise in a supportive atmosphere. Additionally, horticultural therapy makes use of the passive qualities of nature to provide levels of sensory stimulus and impact that help towards achieving positive outcomes.
As a result, there is no single route into to a career in horticultural therapy and no single course that will cover everyone’s needs. The range of jobs in horticultural therapy means that there is different emphasis on different skills and qualifications for each project. Increasingly, employers are demanding multi-skilled professionals who have both experience and a formal qualification. A background in horticulture and experience or training in therapy can all be valuable.
Working as a horticultural therapist demands a wide range of skills – you may be required not only need to be able to develop relevant programmes for their clients, but also manage staff and volunteers, raise funds and create proposals for new projects. A good start would be to attend a short course or complete an introductory online course such as that offered by Edinburgh Garden School, and also to complete some voluntary work – ideally in a social and therapeutic horticulture project in the area of HT that you would like to work in. You can find information on local volunteer projects through Thrive (UK only).
Horticultural therapists tend to work one-to-one with individual clients or with small groups. Planning therapeutic activities, and evaluating them afterwards are both key aspects of the horticultural therapy role, and may take up just as much time as actual client work.
All therapists commit to continuing professional development, so will undertake regular additional training throughout their career.
I’ve worked in education for over 15 years, mostly with children who have special needs. My interest in horticultural therapy began when our school was given a piece of land for the purpose of creating a therapeutic garden. I was asked to create a plan that would make best use of the space and also engage the children in a meaningful educational and therapeutic way. By the time I’d finished that first garden I was hooked, and I now work full time creating school gardens and training educational staff to make best use of the therapeutic and educational potential such gardens offer. You could say that I created my own job role, because until I started doing this, it wasn’t a recognised position. But I love what I do and now often consult outside my own education authority.
I work as a freelance horticultural therapist. I used to work as a full-time psychologist, but I’ve also always been a keen gardener, and found myself becoming more involved in a local organic food co-op. Combining those two areas, I became interested in how horticulture and psychology combined.
I completed the Royal Horticultural Society Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture and did an introductory course in horticultural therapy. Over the next few years, I worked in various horticultural therapy projects supporting the elderly as well as young offenders. I’m now the lead therapist in a new project supporting mental health patients who are moving from a hospital environment back into society. It’s the most challenging and rewarding job I can imagine. This is still a very new field and we’re learning as we go along, so I feel as if I’m always growing. There are some frustrations too, mostly around administration and funding, but the reward of seeing clients transition successfully back into everyday life outside the hospital more than makes up for that!