RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With spring just a day away, you may be plotting out your gardens for this year or planning your next backyard landscaping project. But if someone you know is suffering from a physical or psychological setback, you might want to hand them a trowel, too.
It's called horticultural therapy, a little-known but increasingly popular healing method professional therapists use to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. Practitioners have found that working with soil, flowers, and plants out in the fresh air can give people a sense of renewed purpose and direction, and propel them on their road to recovery. We seem wired to respond positively to plant life; studies show that simple houseplants can improve quality of life for seniors, help hospital patients recover, and provide all sorts of psychological benefits.
THE DETAILS: Horticultural therapists use gardening activities as therapy and rehab for people with a wide range of disabilities. For instance, some use it to improve range of motion in the affected limbs of a stroke victim, or to get someone in cardiac rehab back on a physical fitness regimen. Other therapists use gardening to help those with depression feel less isolated (therapy sessions are often conducted in group settings).
"It's really just a simple process through which plants, gardening activities, and a person's innate closeness to nature are used as vehicles for treatment," says Lana Dreyfuss, executive director of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Practitioners are certified professionals who are specially trained, she says. They're then qualified to work with patients to set goals and design programs to help patients meet those goals. "For example, if I was working with a group of students with ADHD, my stated goal for the group might be to plant flower seeds in several even rows," says Dreyfuss. "But the underlying therapeutic goal would be to get students to stay on task for a certain period of time." A bedridden patient might lack the motivation to take care of daily needs, Dreyfuss adds. But a simple gardening activity, even something like watering houseplants near the bed, might help motivate them.
Read on to learn more about horticultural therapy.