August 22, 2014
White and blue hydrangeas grace a garden
Photo by Penny Gilmer
By Ed Duke
Many of us garden without ever really thinking of what it is about gardening that makes us feel good or enjoy it. We often use horticulture as a therapy without ever stopping to dwell on the benefits. However, there are professionals who have realized the positive benefits of horticulture as a therapeutic tool.
Horticultural therapy has been defined as “the use of plants and gardens for human healing and rehabilitation.” A large body of research has shown that horticulture offers unique values to people with physical, mental, emotional and social disabilities. Plants are the perfect example of non-discrimination. They don’t care about a gardener’s age, mental ability, physical ability or social or economic status. Plants will respond to anyone providing the proper care.
Horticultural therapy has been around for a long time. In the 1600s the poor often had to work in gardens to pay for their medical care. Physicians noticed that these patients recovered quicker and to a better level of health than patients who did not work in the garden. In the 1800s, a few progressive hospitals specializing in the treatment of those with mental illnesses used gardening as a therapy tool. After both World War I and II, injured servicemen worked in gardens to improve function of injured limbs and to increase mental function. They also learned new skills to provide a livelihood.
One of the oldest therapies, horticultural therapy brings people and plants together for health and wellness. Today, many hospitals, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, prisons, schools, social-service facilities and community centers use people-plant interactions as a form of treatment for people with physical or mental disabilities.
The benefits of horticultural therapy may be seen in four areas – intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development. At the intellectual level, horticultural therapy allows people to attain new skills. It also may increase the sense of curiosity and the powers of observation. For many, garden therapy is used to stimulate sensory perceptions. Therapy gardens are often designed to stimulate specific senses like hearing, touch or smell.
The social benefits of horticulture are many. Gardening may be done individually or in groups. Group interaction allows increased cooperation, respect for others and shared responsibility. Horticulture also provides a way for people to interact with others with shared interests.
Increased confidence and self-esteem are important emotional benefits of horticultural therapy. Plants don’t grow to maturity overnight and watching the development of plants over time provides a source of interest and enthusiasm for the future. Gardening also may provide an outlet for stress and anger relief, and provide an outlet for emotional expression.
The physical benefits of horticulture can be attested to by many. Gardening can provide a strenuous workout. But gardening can also be used to develop or regain the use of basic motor skills. Improvements in muscle coordination and dexterity are positive outcomes.
Whether used as a tool for therapy or simply as a hobby, horticulture is an important part of our lives. It is both a vocation and an avocation enjoyed by millions of people. Despite their differences, gardeners have one thing in common – they love plants.
Ed Duke is an Associate Professor of Ornamental Horticulture at Florida A&M University and is volunteer writer for Leon County UF/ IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov
Learn more by watching UF/IFAS Horticulturist Erin Alvarez talking about how therapy gardens can provide stress release and more. Just click the link below.