Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Monday, February 21, 2011

Horticulture Therapy

I am mentoring a student who is doing an independent study on Horticulture Therapy (Therapeutic Gardens). Here is a blog I wrote for her on my current thoughts on HT. If you know of any gardening-as-therapy interventions in your area, please comment and let me know where (this can include school gardens, prison gardens, gardens in residential facilities or garden programs to teach social skills, reduce anxiety, etc).

As a near-lifelong gardener, I know that working with plants, outdoors in a garden setting, is one of the most blissful experiences I have had. Being in the garden is a Zen experience for me- I experience a clear and intense focus (what Mihaly CsĂ­kszentmihály, the cognitive psychologist, calls “flow”) along with a sense of meaning and purpose, as all my cares fade away. Gardening has other benefits for me, I believe, including health benefits from stretching, hauling, digging and lifting, not to mention eating home grown organic produce at the peak of perfection. But a key word in that previous sentence was “believe.” As a gardener, I believe these things to be true from my own experience (which is, however, only anecdotal). As a University instructor, I need to find evidence for a practice that goes beyond the state of anecdote or belief. I need evidence that fits at least some of the rigorous requirements of science, though perhaps true empiric and experimental evidence would be hard to find for this multi-faceted practice, i.e. the one we call horticulture therapy.

I have not been able to do an extensive review of the literature on this subject: that is my student's job. The literature I have looked at comes more from what I described to my student as “the heart” versus “the head.” The heart is an important component of social work and all social services: without the heart, we cannot have productive relationships with others. But our hearts need some guidance from our heads. We all see and filter phenomena through special lenses and we need science to make sure the lenses are the clearest and most objective possible.

There are some indications that horticulture therapy is a useful adjunct to other treatments and is useful in itself, but the field appears to be in its infancy. Even developing a definition of HT is difficult. What is HT? What are its methods? Actual gardening, lessons on foods and nutrition, school-garden-to-cafeteria-table initiatives? Using the plant metaphorically as a symbol of growth and change? Simply using the garden as a neutral environment to discuss emotionally-charged or difficult problems? What are its goals? Reduction of psychological distress? Meditation to reduce stress? To improve physical health? Vocational training? Improvement of social skills and socialization? What populations do we use it with? Children, the elderly, prisoners, and those in residential care facilities. Anyone or everyone else?

The last question is how do we study it? There seems to be qualitative and exploratory work in the literature, but few reports of specific HT interventions compared to non-HT interventions and controls. Until we have this kind of evidence, we do not know if it works…and isn’t this the bottom line? You want your physician to objectively know what works and to use those methods, right? And so it goes with HT. So, to refer back to the title of this blog entry, my clumsy paraphrase of Gertrude Stein when speaking of Cleveland (I actually love Cleveland) “is there a there there?” Is there really something to the positive, therapeutic effects of horticulture, or is it just a nice thing to do?

Happy Gardening!


Anita said...

I see this as a form of "becoming one with the earth." The deep connections we have with certain things are hard to articulate to those that do not have the same interest. However, if someone has his or her own deep connection with something, he or she will know that the "feeling" can apply to many other things in life, such as gardening; that it's internal - always been there waiting to be discovered.

I hope those who house the love of plants will use it to enhance other areas of their lives, as you do. :)

Did I get all off topic? lol

Judy Thomas said...

I always wonder about liking versus not liking gardening-I know many people who say they hate working in the yard, hate gardening. I accept that, but sometimes question further- what they often seem to hate is the grunt work part, the hours to mow, weed-wack, trim, etc... Often these same people appreciate botanical beauty, love a walk in the park- and may benefit from interacting with gardens in another way than lawn care. Is this horticultural therapy?