The beauty of the earth has a way of sobering us. Whether it is sitting on the beach while watching waves break; taking in a geological wonder like the Grand Canyon; or flying over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the natural world helps to center our thoughts and provides significant perspective on life. On a smaller scale, raising a pet or caring for fish can shift the focus from sometimes trivial human affairs to the existential needs of other species. Growing plants and vegetables delivers similar effects. In fact, there are numerous benefits of horticultural therapy for spirit, mind and body.
1. Improving Cognition and Memory
Gardens and flora have long served as calming agents. From ancient Mesopotamia to colonial America, philosophers and scientists extolled the role of horticulture in mood enhancement and thought clarity. It should surprise no one, then, that gardens are useful for patients with degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Memory gardens are now employed by a growing number of senior care facilities to assist patients and caregivers with the anxiety that accompanies the onset of senility.
The green and peaceful atmosphere of the memory garden affords a sense of tranquility in and of itself. Yet the real the role of horticulture in mood enhancement are in its interactive capacity. The ability to weed, to pick flowers, to rake and to water stimulates long-term recall with familiar tasks from the past. In addition, the paths that wind through these gardens allow the patients to walk unaccompanied through the plants and flowers, lifting their spirits with a sense of autonomy. When mood is heightened, thinking is clearer.
2. Improving Communication and Social Skills
When gardening is entered into as a group enterprise, the benefits of horticultural therapy are striking. Autistic children and other young people beset with intellectual disabilities show marked progress in taking turns, sharing the labor and following directions. Some even demonstrate leadership potential. Also encouraging are the interactions outside of the groups. Traveling to flower shows, donating vegetables to food pantries and meeting with garden clubs allow participants to receive appreciation for their hard work outside of an institutional setting.
Even as an individual effort, gardening strengthens the powers of observation and attention to detail. These faculties are not purely intellectual. They boost the quality of personal interactions by overcoming distraction and lengthening attention spans. Perhaps most importantly, horticultural therapy gives its beneficiaries a sense of being needed, of being necessary to the life of another living thing. They can socialize with others from a position of greater confidence.
3. Increasing Physical Strength and Motor Skills
The manual activities of gardening illustrate other benefits of horticultural therapy. The planting of seedlings, for instance, works the flexion action of index finger and thumb, as well as the motions of grip and release. Crouching, standing and reaching – done correctly – build leg and back muscles while stretching them and their connected tendons. Watering plants works the upper body and helps to expand the range of motion. Under the supervision of a certified professional, horticultural therapy might just provide a full-body workout.
Working in a garden with limbs and digits gives a therapy patient greater coordination and balance. Pruning, cutting and mounting to vines requires sustained periods in one position. As the body adapts to these uncomfortable and sometimes awkward postures, it builds up its own equilibrium and informs muscle memory. After months of this kind of work, gardeners are more – dare we say it – grounded. They move with much greater ease. Thus we can add one more to the many benefits of horticultural therapy.
4. Fostering a Positive Self-Image
British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith writes that gardening sometimes provides a vehicle for her patients to express their humanity. “Plants are much less frightening and challenging than people,” she observes, “so a garden may be an accessible way of reconnecting with our life-giving impulses.” Indeed, she argues that the act of giving life and health to a bag of seeds feeds the very soul and – sometimes – overcomes the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that plague even the most accomplished people.
Whereas those with developmental disabilities gain a sense of teamwork when gardening, depressed and anxious patients reap the benefits of horticultural therapy in splendid isolation. Gardens are the ultimate safe space where emotional release and exploration can take place. Cutting back growth and pruning are vehicles in which to express aggression. Conversely, feeding plants and maximizing sunlight give expression to the nurturing side. This all happens without fear of reaction or the possibility of inflicting pain.
5. Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills
To a degree, emotional well-being is answered in the garden by overcoming obstacles, i.e. solving problems. Of all the benefits of horticultural therapy, this ability to make things right has practical as well as psychological results. Typical of this fact are summer campers at the Par Excellence Academy in Newark, NJ. Gardening is a favorite activity of the children because it gives them the opportunity to use their heads as well as their hands.
Extracting stubborn roots turns out to be an issue for the intellect as opposed to pure, brute force. After fruitlessly trying to remove a seemingly immovable root system, students come up with other options like cutting, bypassing or exploring where the root goes. In so doing, they discover that alternatives exist and frustration is banished. The victory also establishes vital neural pathways in the brain essential for future challenges. Today’s young gardeners are tomorrow’s botanists, engineers and college presidents.
Horticultural therapy is by no means a panacea for every problem and dysfunction, nor is it intended to be. Still, there is a deep and primal connection to the earth that is often undermined by the busyness, distractions and tempo of modern living. Getting back to the dirt and its flora helps to re-establish our relationship to the planet. It also develops skills and habits that serve us in other areas of life.