top of page

Horticulture Therapy: The healing Power of Gardening

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Person gardening as a mean to relieve stress

Ever thought that taking care of plants could serve as stress relief?

Cause Jim Hines of Ventura, a former nursery owner, landscaper, and designer of healing gardens says:

“Just spending quiet peaceful time in the garden lowers your stress factor. The greenery and flowers in bloom calm the soul … the garden is almost magical in its powers to heal.”

It shouldn’t be surprising actually because even the meaning of the color green describes it as a relaxing color that has healing power. But horticulture therapy goes beyond that. Horticulture therapy is a therapeutic technique that involves gardening and taking care of plants. Studies have shown that gardening therapy has a lot of benefits, especially for mental health. More specifically, the benefits of this treatment will be explored later on.

But first, do you know when this technique originated?

Horticulture therapy may sound like a new trend in therapy, but it's been first documented in ancient times. In the 19th century, for the first time, Dr. Benjamin Rush (signer of the Declaration of Independence and recognized as the "Father of American Psychiatry") stated the plus sides that gardening had on mental illnesses. The technique was adapted in rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans between the years 1940-1950, just like it is stated here:

“From a mental health perspective, gardening can help with anxiety and depression, among other issues, and I’m aware for example that veterans of the U.S. military have found gardening and farming to help deal with PTSD,” Sam Thomas (The Sustainable Edible Education Project garden at California Lutheran University) said.

Even though horticulture therapy helps with mental disorders, this treatment has been proven to be beneficial to a wider range of diagnoses. Today horticultural therapists combine natural therapies with traditional medicine to help patients heal on physical, mental, and emotional levels.

Horticulture Theraoy

But what are some of the benefits of horticulture therapy? If we were about to answer this question in general terms by stating the words of a therapist at Camali Clinic, a UAE-based center for child and adolescent mental health, we would say something similar to this:

"The benefits of gardening really are prodigious. Not only can the exertions involved in digging, weeding, planting, and pruning help your physical health, but they can also have a very positive impact on your mental health," says Adam Griffin.

But if we were about to be more specific on concrete terms we would list some benefits starting with responsibility. This is a great quality to induct to youngsters.

Taking care of plants will give them a sense of responsibility for the life of a creature and they will feel obliged towards the duties they have related to the plant/garden. According to “Green Cities: Good Health” (a website that provides an overview of the scientific evidence of human health and well-being benefits provided by urban forestry and urban greening) approximately 80% of the US population and around 50% of the world population live in urbanized areas. Based on these statistics gardening for youth might have a greater effect since it will allow them to escape from the frenetic everyday life:

“Given the high population densities of urban areas, every bit of nearby nature has the potential to benefit hundreds to thousands of people daily.”

Watering Plants, a process of horticulture Therapy

After gardening for some time you will notice results such as a flower blooming. This is why another benefit of horticulture therapy would be the feeling of reward. After working for some time you can see the “fruits” of your work and have a sense of accomplishment. The same statement was mentioned by Anne Love (author of ­Gardening in Oman and the UAE):

"When you invest time and effort into growing plants, you feel a sense of ownership and pride, and this helps you feel you belong to a place."

When you are dealing with a lot of stress, knowing and witnessing that one part of your life is blooming can motivate you to push yourself harder into working more.

During gardening, you are always in contact with living creatures and learn to bring back to life plants that might be dying. This treatment gives you a different kind of connection with the living things. This connection to other living creatures for which you are a provider is studied by Biophilia. As living things, humans want to connect with other living things. But the connection between humans and plants is fascinating because it is a connection that grows within time. Not only this, but it makes people look like a piece of the whole puzzle of the living world, just like Malati Jagasia (a child’s psychologist in Mumbai) says:

"Gardening shows us that we are but a small part of nature, and getting over such feelings of insularity and self-­absorption is an automatic antidepressant."

All of the above describes the grounding theory. Gardening itself connects people more to the earth and nature. Witnessing everything that goes on in nature while you are taking care of it connects people to the cycle of life, death, or even rebirth.

A person planting a root in soil, part of horticulture therapy

The whole process of planting a seed makes you more patient and gives you hope. It makes you the patient because the process requires time. On the other side, it gives you hope because the only thing you can do after planting the seed is hope for it to start growing. Even the researcher Mathew Page considers “hope” the best benefit that horticulture therapy can implement to someone. Even Anne Love (author of ­Gardening in Oman and the UAE) supports this by stating:

"Every day when you check on your plants, you will notice differences - a new bud forming, or your herbs need cutting - and that is a very pleasing, rewarding experience."

Can you imagine how important it is to restore hope in someone even for the slightest smallest thing such as the thought that a planted seed today might grow tomorrow?

The process of planting a seed or taking care of plants takes the mind of your daily problems. When you are not thinking you relax. That feeling of peace makes your levels of dopamine and serotonin go up as a result you feel happy. Sigmund Freud spoke about the positive effect in happy hormones that flowers had on people:

“Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions or conflicts.”

Freud’s theory it’s similar to “You absorb the energy you receive”. Flowers give this relaxed and calm energy which makes you forget all of the problems you might have at work, school, or even family and just be present at the moment.

Happy Woman after going through Horticulture Therapy

When you are focused on living in the present, your attention is focused there. The fact that makes your attention span longer is another plus side of horticulture therapy. Psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are the ones that developed this theory. According to their study people have two types of attention: directed attention and fascination. Fascination is the one that is affected by the gardening activity and it has the power to affect concentration levels, memory, or even problem-solving abilities. Since this advantage has been proved, the treatment has been used in hospitals for dementia patients. They take care of plants daily and are less likely to display aggression or experience injuries be show improved sleep patterns, balanced hormones, decreased agitation, and cognition in dementia.

According to Biological Psychiatry’s experts, it’s the fresh air that helps to prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Gardening is an activity that ensures the benefit that fresh air offers and more. During planting, you have to get your hand dirty with soil. That isn't necessarily a bad thing since the soil contains a friendly allergy-fighting bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. On the physical benefits of gardening can be listed that the movements made during the work are compatible with kinetic therapy according to Sam Thomas (The Sustainable Edible Education Project garden at California Lutheran University).

A nice vase of Daisy collection, Part of horticulture therapy

Considering all the studies done on horticulture therapy and the positive effects, some hospitals started to adopt this method. Based on their data the patients with plants in their rooms show less pain, shorter hospitalization, less anxiety, and higher hospital room satisfaction. Or for specific patients, a four-week horticultural therapy program witnessed that patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain had an increase in mental and physical health and also an improved ability to deal with chronic pain. Meanwhile, patients with clinical depression after participating in a therapeutic gardening activity claimed a reduction of depression. There are so many other cases when this form of therapy has been proven helpful. This is why there has been an increased request for more therapeutic gardens around medical centers.

Who would have thought that a patch of land if it is nurtured and taken care of can have so many benefits for humans? There was a time when this was considered as a punishment by the state’s structures for doing crimes (prisoners) or a punishment from life when you didn’t pay as much attention to school (farmers). But it looks like being around “green life” is the new privilege. Are you ready to embrace it? If yes, click here and read more on how to get started on Horticulture.

bottom of page