Horticultural Therapy

a young woman at Chicago Rehab Center participating in Horticultural Therapy for her mental health and substance abuse recovery

How Can I Benefit From Horticultural Therapy?

Any gardener worth their trowel will tell you that gardening is their preferred form of meditation.  But horticultural therapy, or the practice of healing through interaction with plants, is nearly as old as the United States. Dr. Benjamin Rush was a 19th-century proponent of horticultural therapy, noting its positive effect on those suffering from mental illnesses.

Following the First and Second World Wars, mentally and physically traumatized veterans engaged in horticultural therapy as a healing practice. This form of therapy, however, has come a long way in the past few decades. Like the plants themselves, this practice took root, branched out, and has flowered in unexpected directions.  Here in the 21st century, we have a specific set of protocols and designs for therapy sessions and healing gardens. This form of therapy is a valuable addition to the array of supplementary treatment options available to those attending an addiction treatment center.

First and foremost, horticultural therapy works by facilitating an individuals interaction with nature. Patients may or may not work with specially trained horticultural therapists.  Sometimes, the addition of programming to a patients gardening regimen proves effective.  Other times, patients tend to their gardens alone or in groups.

Plants and Mental Health

After all, plants are in and of themselves, deeply stimulating to the senses: they have unique smells and textures, they move and rustle in the wind. Studies show that just encountering plants decreases anxiety and increases well-being whether in a greenhouse,  garden or in a residence.  Purposeful gardening, it turns out, produces an even higher benefit to the individuals mental health (The Journal of Health Psychology). This is not just because of the Vitamin D generated by exposure to natural light, nor the physical health and dexterity promoted by planting, digging, tilling, and trimming.

Many of the benefits conferred by horticultural therapy stem from the responsibility and accomplishment that come with gardening.  In a recovery setting, patients often collaborate with one another to maintain the overall health of a therapeutic garden.  This improves socialization and accountability.

Additionally, one must mindfully tend to the plants in order to nurture them from seed to seedling, to full-blown flower.  We believe at Chicago Rehab Center that when a plant thrives, the gardener receives a natural and tangible sense of accomplishment that builds self-esteem and confidence. Gardening is a contemplative activity, and moreover, one that mirrors the stages of recovery.  At first, there is hopelessness and doubt. Then comes a small, fragile sprout of personal growth.  Eventually, this blossoms into a full-blown successful recovery and the patients reintroduction to society at large.

Reviewed by Dr. Beth Dunlap

Dr. Beth Dunlap, a board-certified addiction medicine and family medicine physician, is the medical director at CRC Institute, where she is responsible for overseeing all the integrated medical services at the Institute. Beth completed medical school, residency, and fellowship at Northwestern University, where she continues to serve on the faculty as a member of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She has extensive experience in addiction medicine at all levels of care, and her clinical interests include integrated primary care and addiction medicine, harm reduction, and medication-assisted treatment.

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