Greenhouse Canada

Horticulture Therapy

March 6, 2008  By Canadian Garden Centre & Nursery

Plants thrive with water, warmth, sunshine and fertilizer. And so do their caregivers. Health-care professionals have come to realize that horticulture is not
just a rewarding pastime, but working with soil, seeds and plants can
be an enriching experience that helps to build self-esteem and

Plants thrive with water, warmth, sunshine and fertilizer. And so do their caregivers.

Health-care professionals have come to realize that horticulture is not just a rewarding pastime, but working with soil, seeds and plants can be an enriching experience that helps to build self-esteem and confidence. 


“There is something magical and curative about the powers of nature, as seen in the growth of a plant,” says Mitchell Hewson, HTM, who operates Canada’s largest and longest-running horticultural therapy program at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont. “Flowers perpetuate themselves with their seeds, constantly repeating the cycle. Nature is forgiving – if a plant dies, another can be grown in its place. If a mistake is made, nature teaches how to avoid repeating it, because the life cycle of plants provides us with hope of life renewed and a chance to begin again.”   

Homewood’s three registered horticultural therapists provide a range of plant and nature-related activities and classes in the state-of-the-art conservatory and classroom, or outdoors in the raised therapeutic garden beds, arboretum and gazebo area. Homewood’s specialized programs offer treatment to all Canadians coping with addictions; depression and anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; eating disorders; mood disorders, addictions and dementias in older adults and long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia.

“In its simplest form, horticultural therapy is a therapeutic process that uses plants and other horticultural activities to improve an individual’s quality of life,” says Hewson. 

Horticulture provides excellent stimuli for the senses – sight, taste, touch and smell. Using living material that requires nurturing and care, patients take part in activities that stimulate thought, exercise the body and encourage awareness of the external environment.

After assessing patients’ cognitive, behavioural, physical and social skills, therapists design a variety of horticultural tasks and activities that are meaningful and challenging to the individual, promote self-esteem and teach positive leisure skills that support the recovery process. Many of these activities also provide opportunities for creativity and imagination.

Patients are encouraged to share their feelings and emotions through group and individual interaction. The therapists build rapport with patients while working with selected plants, evaluating their abilities to function socially through group work and to comprehend a variety of tasks.

Horticultural therapy is highly effective with elderly patients who enjoy both physical and psychological benefits. Working with plants and soil helps to increase their dexterity, improve circulation and develop upper and lower body strength. Group activities enhance their social and communicative skills. The smell, touch and feel of the plants help to reduce their anxiety and stress. Depression and anxiety are alleviated and activities tailored specifically to their needs help to build self-esteem and confidence.

“Planning is the essential element to a successful horticultural program,” says Hewson. “The first step in the planning process is understanding each patient’s diagnosis. Once we understand the characteristics of the disease, we then know how to use horticulture as an intervention to promote a quality of life and dignity.” 

For example, elderly individuals who experience anger and anxiety benefit from activities such as digging, hoeing, pruning and smashing pots, which help them to release anger and aggression. Activities are designed to suit the mental and physical abilities of the individual. With the elderly, Hewson recommends a session of no longer than one-half hour to ensure success.

Horticultural therapy has proven beneficial to patients with other disorders. As they care for plants, addiction patients learn about self-nurturing, interpersonal relationships, co-operation, giving up control and learning to listen – skills they can apply to their lives and their relationships with family and friends.

For patients recovering from post-traumatic stress, the conservatory offers a safe and inviting sanctuary rich with lush plants, warmth and natural sunlight.  Fragrances such as lavender, geranium and neroli help to stimulate, calm and lessen their anxiety and depression. A variety of plants and hands-on activities offers patients an opportunity to experience the world of nature. Through class projects and garden activities, clients celebrate their strengths and successes. They learn to relax, decrease tension, develop positive social interaction with others and have fun without trauma as the core of their identity. Daily horticultural activities help to balance psychotherapeutic sessions with creative activities and hands-on projects that stimulate their imagination. Psychological burials – in which patients bury, burn or plant their pain, are often beneficial to trauma patients, helping them symbolically  to move from being victims to survivors.

Patients suffering from depression feel their spirits lift in the greenhouse setting and constructive activities help to channel negative emotions, leaving them with feelings of optimism, confidence and self-worth. In planting fruits and vegetables, patients with eating disorders learn about nutrition and also the importance of nurturing their bodies and souls. Schizophrenic patients who garden gain a stronger hold on reality and greater control of their environment.

“Horticulture therapy is on the threshold of a great future in health care. Discovering the wonders of nature can represent a profound change of lifestyle for people who are learning to feel positive about themselves once more. By nurturing plants and developing an awareness of the environment, they are then able to give back these newly found skills and renewed energy to their families, as well as to the community they once rejected,” says Hewson.

Ten of the Best Therapeutic Plants:
Plants should have functional qualities that the therapist can use to help patients develop or improve physical or cognitive skills such as daily living tasks or decision-making.

Plants should be:
•     non-poisonous
•    multi-dimensional, with more than two uses
•    of interesting colour, shape and texture
•    easy to grow and propagate
•    ideal for multi-tasking
•    used for meaningful and creative tasks
1.  Dwarf Orange Tree – tropical
•     orange colour is highly visual
•     fruit can be used for jam
•     orange blossoms are used as an antidepressant (neroli)
•    extract from the leaves is used for skin conditions
•     smell of citrus promotes reality and stimulates memory

2. Scented Geranium – annual and perennial
•    clean and refreshing smell
•    highly visual
•    many varieties used for olfactory and taste
•    stimulates thought and energy
•    the oil from the flowers is used as an antidepressant and antiseptic ideal for skin disorders

3. Lavender – perennial
•    highly fragrant – stimulates the limbic system
•    used for sleep disorders
•    most recognized fragrance for older people
•    used for skin disorders and headaches
•    ideal for crafts and potpourri
•    used in bath water gives an enormous amount of relief from muscular pain, rheumatism and arthritis

4. Coleus – annual
•    highly visual
•    easy to propagate – roots in 10 days or less
•    square stems provide texture and strength, ideal for arthritic hands
•    colour and growth provides instant gratification
•    ideal plant for task analysis

5. Spider Plant – tropical
•    highly visual
•    name suggests what the plant looks like
•    easy to propagate and grow
•    promotes the good exchange of gases 
•    pendulous structure adds dimension to a room

6.      Mint – perennial
•    ideal for sensory stimulation
•    easy to grow and propagate
•    used in an array of projects
•    cools the body and aids in digestion
•    has many culinary uses
•    ideal for headaches and pain

7.     Pansy – annual
•    colour and texture stimulates attention and memory
•    reality orientation to time of year
•    used for many culinary and craft  projects
•    candles, potpourri, stationery, etc.
•    flowers are edible and ideal for salads

8. Wandering Jew – inch plant
•    grows under a variety of conditions
•    easy to propagate
•    colour and texture ideal for visual impairment
•    used for sensory stimulation
•    plant produces roots within five days – instant gratification
•    non-toxic
•    colour patterns vary according to

9. Succulents
•     easy to grow
•    survive heat and drought
•    variety of textures, colours and shapes
•    withstand high temperatures and dry conditions
•    provide interest, and stimulate the mind
•    ideal for visual and physical impairments
•    sturdy plant that is easy to work with
•    some varieties good for skin conditions (aloe vera)

10. African violet
•    thousands of varieties of flower forms and colours
•    texture and size ideal for many projects
•     blooms throughout the year
•    soft-textured plant that increases attention span and helps to lessen agitation

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