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Longread Health

Gardening as therapy


Words by Georgie Sinclair

Illustrations by Stephanie F. Scholz

A quick glance at the topics that frequent our headlines today and it’s clear that concerns of our mental health are becoming a permanent fixture in public conversation. Dig a little deeper and you’ll trace the roots of these problems back to the often hostile urban settings we live within. Our deteriorating relationship with the natural world has, however, carved a comfortable space for therapists, psychologists and social workers to unearth the therapeutic and remedial virtues of plants and gardens.

Horticultural Therapy emerged from the philosophy that the aesthetic appeal of plants can visibly reduce signs of mental stress, fear and anger, and it treats people suffering with mental health conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia and depression. In this practice, patients are introduced to custom designed ‘healing gardens,’ helping them find tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Practitioners have long been specialising in this type of therapy in Sweden, with the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden located on the fringes of Malmo, an international leader. Since introduced, their research has shown astonishing physiological and psychological improvements in their patients, with 67% ready to return to employment or studies after treatment.

Then there’s the other side to the story. While cities can lead us to think they increase the prospect for social interaction, many people are living in crippling solitude. Recognising this, hospitals and healthcare institutions across the UK are introducing ‘reciprocal’ gardening schemes to encourage isolated individuals like the elderly, out of the confines of their homes and into green spaces. Here they have the opportunity to give back to the community through plant care and cultivation. There is a wealth of knowledge which points out how gardening strengthens cognitive processes such as concentration and memory, and can drastically speed up post-operative recovery.

horticultural therapy

Tempting younger generations to branch into this field, however, is a far greater challenge. When a group of court-involved youths were first introduced to the prospect of gardening by non-profit H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths, it was met with anticipated resistance; “This is New York City, a lot of them have never even touched dirt,” exclaimed co-founder Heather Butts, who also serves as a specialist at Columbia University Medical Center. “They say, ‘I don’t like worms, I don’t like ladybugs!’”

Be they foster children battling post-traumatic stress disorder or young offenders doing community service, Health for Youths was set-up in 2009 to find meaningful ways to improve the lives of the under-served. It now operates in several parts of New York City with the assistance of the City Council. Butts notes, “over the years we have found that it can be really therapeutic for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental issues.” Many of her students suffer all kinds of domestic problems too. “The green spaces function as an oasis away from problems at home… it gets them out of their family environment or larger community environment, as they may be involved in a gang or something else.” Gardening gives them something entirely different to focus on, and a sense of responsibility as “they learn how to mow, how to weed, how to build a trellis, and in the summer we’ll have run them a farmers market like a business.”

“it can be really therapeutic for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and depression”
horticultural therapy

Not only do students build strong bonds with their peers, but also with the wider community, many of who become their mentors over time. A most striking contrast is their ‘Cops and Kids’ programme, which distills possible negative preconceptions and power imbalances between the youth and city officials. These lasting connections have a huge impact on students’ self-esteem. “For them, it’s a real game changer,” says Butts.

It is evident these gardens represent something far greater than their physical manifestation; they behave as a conduit for social, physical and psychological improvement. Studies have been pointing out that plants can enrich our lives for years, but these types of projects in practice give tangible evidence that our disengagement with the natural world might be just the antidote needed to pave our way back to sanity.