This was my friend’s garden the first year after I encouraged her to add gardens around her new home. Leila had been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer and was recovering from major surgery. Leila’s work had taken her all over the world, but she returned to the county she considered to be home after her diagnosis. She had never gardened in her life, always too busy heading off to her next adventure. She liked the idea of sitting on her deck and enjoying flowers and butterflies, and so my amateur attempt at horticultural therapy began. I thought bulbs might provide a quick return on effort expended, and the lilies that came up that first spring were proof of concept.
Leila was thoroughly hooked. She continued to expand her garden area, adding mostly native wildflowers and small shrubs. Her home sitting atop a wooded ridge became an enchanted garden full of life and color that turned Leila into a strong proponent of the benefits of horticultural therapy. I like to think her gardens were a secret weapon as she battled her disease for over six years before finally succumbing to it.
Nearing the end of her battle, her gardens became neglected. But Leila had chosen her neighborhood wisely. One Saturday morning, many of her neighbors showed up to restore her gardens to their past glory. I like to think that day was therapeutic for all who participated.
My work with Leila was not professional horticultural therapy. Although I had volunteered a bit with the Horticulture Therapy staff at the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG), and I do have a B.A. in psychology, I was improvising without a plan. Having worked with the HT staff at the NCBG, I knew that the practice of professional therapeutic horticulture is a discipline backed by decades of research that demonstrate its benefits for a wide range of clients, including those dealing with memory issues, mental illness, eating disorders, mobility limitations, and other challenges. Plants heal — of course, I knew that much.
Many Occupational Therapists and other related practitioners are adding a certificate in Therapeutic Horticulture to their personal toolkits, because it expands the ways they can help their clients. I believe the time put in to earn that credential is well worth the investment. And now there’s a way to begin this learning process online at your own pace on your own schedule.
The NCBG has partnered with the NC State Extension Gardener Program to develop a series of online courses that teach Therapeutic Horticulture. The first in the series, Introduction to Therapeutic Horticulture, will begin next week, May 23. All the details you need to learn more are provided in the link in this paragraph. I know and have worked with one of the instructors, Sally Haskett, for many years. Her breadth of experience and friendly approach to the subject made interactions with her a consistent pleasure. I feel certain that this online course will reflect that.
Teachers of all kinds may well find the techniques used in Therapeutic Horticulture to be of great use. Volunteers who work with the elderly, children, or clients with mobility and/or psychological challenges would also likely find that adding this knowledge to their toolkit would aid their work.
If you are such a person, please ponder the detailed description in the link above, and if you are moved to do so, consider taking this first step in your journey to learning how to heal hearts, minds, and bodies with the help of the green world.