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Horticultural Therapy: A People-Plant Connection

By: Carol Dorsey, Mobile County Master Gardener, AHTA Associate,

Certificate in Horticultural Therapy | www.MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org

“What are you doing here? Are they paying you?” The rather direct young man asked as we began a gardening session at Strickland Youth Center.


“Nope. Volunteering.” I responded.


“Then why are you here?” he asked.


“The garden is a place of hope for me, and I like being in places of hope,” I answered.


The youth nodded his head and became attentive as he and two others were guided through planting 18 pepper transplants into newly built raised beds in the detention garden.


I continued, “Dig a hole with the trowel so we can plant the pepper at the same depth as it is in the pot. Carefully loosen the plant from its pot. Gently massage the root ball to loosen it, getting the roots ready to grow out into the garden soil. Place the plant in the hole and lightly press the soil around its roots.


“Please prepare our watering can with a couple of teaspoons of seaweed extract which has nutrients that help the new planting grow better. Water it well so the soil settles in around the roots. We want to make a good home for the plant so that it can grow to its full potential, producing hot peppers.


“Good job! Seventeen more to go! Would y’all share your experiences of gardening?”

They told stories about gardening with grandmothers and uncles. More questions followed, drawing out memory details like, “Do you remember what you saw, smelled, or tasted?”


The participants willingly joined the pro-social gardening session, followed multiple-step directions, learned new vocabulary demonstrating cognitive engagement, and worked, shared, and engaged with others appropriately, a psycho-social domain goal. They called it “Fun!” unaware that they experienced horticultural therapy.


Therapeutic horticulture is a client centered, plant-based modality used in the three general areas of vocational, rehabilitation, or wellness programs. The people-plant connection is well-documented as gardens have been used as healing places for centuries; a place where our five basic senses: sight, sound, smell, hearing, and touch, can be used. Modern scientific methods have been applied to investigate the human brain’s responses to working with plants and being in nature and gardens. Evidence-based research shows positive changes in brain chemistry after gardening sessions, such as increased serotonin, a neurotransmitter affecting nerves all over the body. Specifically, neuroscience studies have shown that bacteria found in soil, such as Mycobacterium vaccae can stimulate the brain to produce serotonin. Healthy serotonin levels regulate anxiety, reduce depression, and strengthen the immune system.


With defined goals and supportive objectives, often developed in a team with occupational or psychological therapists, plant-based activities appropriate to the population, are planned and led by a person trained in horticultural therapy. The elderly who have reduced fine motor skills, the dementia-diagnosed with diminished social and cognitive skills, the intellectually disabled, and sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can learn adaptive methods for their gardening experience, encouraging them to live to their potential. The horticultural therapist documents observations to determine the effectiveness of the session and the participants’ engagement. The record-keeping is used to guide changes or improvements to the therapeutic horticulture program.


Several universities and botanical gardens offer a four-part certificate curriculum including fundamentals, techniques, programming, and management accredited by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). For the professional designation of registered horticultural therapist (HTR), a supervised internship is required. The coursework covers population characteristics, types of programs, goal, objective, and activity development, budgeting, and recordkeeping.


Following are a few resources to learn more about this emerging therapeutic practice:

Stuart-Smith, Sue, The Well-Gardened Mind--The Restorative Power of Nature, Scribner Publishing, 2020. Horticultural Therapy Institute, Colorado State University, https://www.htinstitute.org/; mobileurbangrowers@gmail.com


Garden Events for Your Calendar


What: Visit Mobile Botanical Gardens

Where: 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile

When: Wed-Sun (check web site for hours and fees)

Lunch: Reserve a lunch Wednesdays and Fridays

More info: www.MobileBotanicalGardens.org

What: Market in the Park

When: Saturdays – 7:30 am to noon through July 17, 2021

Where: Cathedral Square, 300 Conti Street, Mobile

Look for the Master Gardener Tent!

More info: SpecialEventsMobile.org


What: Alabama Garden Chat, a Zoom Space

to learn about seasonal garden problems

When: Wednesdays, 2 - 3 pm (April through August)

Questions: Email AlabamaGardenChat@gmail.com

Join with this link: auburn.zoom.us/j/82398811386

Master Gardener Helpline 877-252-4769


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