Gardening Heals Mind and Body

A little-known therapeutic method relies on planting, gardening, even flower arranging to help people heal.

March 18, 2010

Time in the garden can improve mood and range of motion.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With spring just a day away, you may be plotting out your gardens for this year or planning your next backyard landscaping project. But if someone you know is suffering from a physical or psychological setback, you might want to hand them a trowel, too.

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It's called horticultural therapy, a little-known but increasingly popular healing method professional therapists use to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. Practitioners have found that working with soil, flowers, and plants out in the fresh air can give people a sense of renewed purpose and direction, and propel them on their road to recovery. We seem wired to respond positively to plant life; studies show that simple houseplants can improve quality of life for seniors, help hospital patients recover, and provide all sorts of psychological benefits.

THE DETAILS: Horticultural therapists use gardening activities as therapy and rehab for people with a wide range of disabilities. For instance, some use it to improve range of motion in the affected limbs of a stroke victim, or to get someone in cardiac rehab back on a physical fitness regimen. Other therapists use gardening to help those with depression feel less isolated (therapy sessions are often conducted in group settings).

"It's really just a simple process through which plants, gardening activities, and a person's innate closeness to nature are used as vehicles for treatment," says Lana Dreyfuss, executive director of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Practitioners are certified professionals who are specially trained, she says. They're then qualified to work with patients to set goals and design programs to help patients meet those goals. "For example, if I was working with a group of students with ADHD, my stated goal for the group might be to plant flower seeds in several even rows," says Dreyfuss. "But the underlying therapeutic goal would be to get students to stay on task for a certain period of time." A bedridden patient might lack the motivation to take care of daily needs, Dreyfuss adds. But a simple gardening activity, even something like watering houseplants near the bed, might help motivate them.

Read on to learn more about horticultural therapy.

More often than not, horticultural therapy is a way to improve a person's psychological well-being, whether they're suffering from depression or recovering from a life-changing physical injury. "If you're in a bad car accident, you're dealing with the physical disability, but also feelings of stress, anger, resentment, and hopelessness," Dreyfuss says. Teaching people how to garden, arrange flowers, or plant seeds often can boost mood as well as self-esteem. "Gardening is a can-do activity," she says. It doesn't take a lot of training, and the results of your work are quickly apparent.

WHAT IT MEANS: This treatment method hasn't been studied extensively, but the little research that's been done on horticultural therapy shows what most gardeners already know: It helps you feel better. Researchers at Virginia Tech University compared horticultural therapy to traditional games and activities used to treat adults with dementia, and found that people stuck with horticultural activities (such as planting flowers or doing crafts that involve dried flowers) longer than they did the traditional activities. Other studies have found that people in horticultural therapy have improved verbal ability and social interaction, and often—in the case of people with physical disabilities—the therapy turns into a career path.

If you'd like to try horticultural therapy or think it might be useful for a friend or loved one, the American Horticultural Therapy Association maintains a database of registered therapists on its website, ahta.org. Currently, few therapists are able to accept insurance, but Dreyfuss says the association is in the process of working out an insurance reimbursement program, so you may want to inquire about that.

Of course, if you're suffering from the usual end-of-winter blahs, you may not need professional help to engage in a little garden therapy. Simply spending time in nature has all sorts of benefits, like lowering your stress levels and even making you a better person. If you're looking to start your first garden this spring, see our stories on planting a pizza garden, buying seeds, and growing vegetables in a small space. And go to Organicgardening.com to find expert advice for any gardener, from beginner to advanced.