Recently, as I was cleaning up my suburban veggie patch for the last time this year, my next-door neighbour Larry leaned over the fence and asked, “Are you still playing around in the dirt? For a novice gardener, you really seem to be bitten by the gardening bug.”

“I’m enjoying the fresh air and the chance to have some downtime away from the computer,” I replied.

As Larry and I continued our conversation, I related that I was amazed at the calming effect gardening has on me. “Give me an hour in the garden–I feel relaxed and rejuvenated, and the stresses of my day don’t seem so daunting,” I said. “For me, gardening has therapeutic benefits.”

“It’s somewhat coincidental you should mention that,” replied Larry. “I was surfing the Internet the other day, looking for information on gardening, and I came across several sites that mentioned horticultural therapy. Ever heard of it?”

“I can’t say that I have,” I said.

What is Horticultural Therapy?

Larry related that horticultural therapy (HT) is a process that encourages healing through gardening, and HT is used in hospitals, nursing and group homes, rehab clinics, community gardens, schools, farms, and detention facilities. Trained horticultural therapists work with other therapists and medical professionals to help treat physical injuries or disease, mental illness, conditions associated with aging, social problems, and substance abuse.

“Is this some new flavour-of-the-month therapy?” I asked.

“Not a chance,” my neighbour said. “HT, in one form or another, has been around for years–in 1798, for example, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, documented the benefits that mentally impaired patients gained from exposure to gardening. In the 20th century, US veterans’ administration hospitals used gardening to help shell-shocked and injured soldiers recover and rehabilitate.”

Larry further explained that when the American Horticultural Therapy Association was formed in 1973, HT became a professional discipline, which the association promoted as a therapeutic human service program to help patients deal with their particular physical or psychological health problems.

Benefits of Horticultural Therapy

When I asked him how patients benefited from HT, Larry said that patients can assist the healing process either by taking an active role in gardening and horticultural activities or by merely relaxing and savouring the serenity and calmness of a garden. People with physical disabilities may find that HT improves physical strength, mobility, and stamina. Others who are stressed might discover that gardening relieves tension. Troubled teenagers may learn problem-solving techniques or gain future employment skills by being taught how to follow directions and complete work assignments.

Larry also mentioned the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is a prime example of a gardening facility that provides a wide variety of benefits. In addition to HT programs, the Chicago Botanic Garden features the 11,000-square-foot Buehler Enabling Garden, which has been designed for people of all ages and capabilities and is a trendsetter in barrier-free gardening. This garden’s many features include raised flowerbeds, adjustable hanging baskets, vertical wall gardens, raised water gardens, and paved access to the gardens. Some of the flowerbeds even have metal grids that become planting guides for people who garden by touch.

If you want to find out more about HT in Canada, check out the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association at chta.ca. It’s a good place to start your search–and who knows–maybe someday you’ll make the transition from gardening greenhorn to horticultural therapist.

To see HT used in a practical setting, visit chicagobotanic.org/therapy. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s programs have served over 100 agencies since 1977, providing a wide variety of therapeutic and educational benefits.

About the Author

Jim Blair is a BC-based freelance writer who is still hoping to develop a green thumb.