Horticultural Therapy

I have had a relationship with plants since I was four years old. My earliest memories involve a grove of pine trees filled with chipmunks, and a wide bank of English ivy where rainbow-striped lizards lived, occasionally emerging to sun themselves on a concrete sidewalk.

When I get cranky during long, cold winters that prevent me from working in the yard, Wonder Spouse sends me to my little greenhouse to breathe moist, warm air and fondle the plants that overwinter there. It works; I always feel better — more relaxed and content — after working with plants, even if it’s just a couple of hours spent pulling weeds.

The many variations of green smells and textures, rainbow arrays of flowers and scents, bird songs, pollinator visitors, and sometimes the occasional grumpy toad disturbed by my digging — all heal whatever ails me — every time. I am a long-time practitioner of a discipline that has acquired a name in the last few decades: horticultural therapy.

Many studies have demonstrated that all humans feel better when they connect with the natural world. This is especially true for those of us struggling with health challenges. Those who suffer from senile dementia, brain injury, mobility challenges brought on by stroke or accident, mentally challenged individuals, those struggling with mental illness, including eating disorders, and gravely ill children in hospitals — all of these groups benefit from spending time with the green world.

The strong, fresh scent of herbs such as rosemary and sage remind the forgetful of favorite recipes or a long-ago kitchen garden. Planting and harvesting vegetables and herbs help to center struggling minds and spirits. The potent perfume of a magnolia blossom may remind a fading mind of long-ago dances with handsome suitors.

One of the finest horticultural therapy programs in the United States is part of my favorite public garden: The North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. They’ve been leaders in this discipline since 1978. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the staff dedicated to this discipline. Their stories always warm my heart and confirm what I have long known: plants heal. You can learn all about their inspiring programs here. Go read, learn more, and — if you live near here — maybe you’ll even be inspired to help in some way.

But even if you don’t live nearby or have the time or inclination to help with the NC Botanical Garden’s formal horticultural therapy program, perhaps you can undertake a little therapy on your own. Do you have elderly relatives or neighbors with yards that could use sprucing up? Perhaps they don’t go outside much because of accessibility issues. Maybe you could help. A small row of potted herbs for a sunny kitchen window can brighten a heart, and even flavor a soup. Do you have a friend who is struggling with personal issues? Maybe you two should take a spring stroll through a local garden. Or better yet, maybe you can help your friend plant a few tomatoes, or flowers, or herbs — whatever seems most likely to lift her spirits.

Plants heal. But you must remember to go outside and get your hands dirty, fondle a few leaves, breathe the sweetness of spring flowers, feel the sun on your face. I encourage all my readers to step outside their routines this weekend and find someone with whom you can share your love of plants — someone, perhaps, who could use the lift that the botanical world freely provides.

  1. #1 by New Hampshire Garden Solutions on March 29, 2012 - 7:32 pm

    Very true. I’ve seen gardening help many.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on March 29, 2012 - 8:02 pm

      Welcome, Allen. It’s always a pleasure to learn of another advocate for gardening’s many benefits. 🙂

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