Happiness and Horticultural Therapy

Could gardening be a helpful tool for your mental well-being?

By Vicki Spencer

This year might be remembered as the year of healing. At least that’s my hope as more and more people turn to gardening.

For many years, I only thought about my gardens as serving specific, tangible functions. They provided my family with fresh fruits and vegetables to eat and graced my home with abundantly beautiful flowers. But last year, after the coronavirus outbreak led to increased isolation, I began to reflect upon my mental state while gardening.

Although it took a pandemic for me to become consciously aware of gardening’s therapeutic value, medical professionals have known this for a long time. In the 19th century, psychiatrists began documenting the positive impact of gardening on individuals with mental illness. In the 1940s and 1950s, health care workers began observing additional therapeutic benefits while working to rehabilitate World War II veterans. Today, the American Society of Landscape Architects recognizes a specialized field of study that embraces the concept of designing plant-dominated environments with the purpose of facilitating interaction with nature’s healing properties.

There are endless ways to design therapeutic gardens, but the primary focus is on providing convenience and enjoyment to people with a diverse range of abilities. When considering accessibility, garden paths may be wide and gently graded with raised beds that are attainable while standing or sitting in a chair. Plant selections may be sensory-oriented with a focus on color, texture and fragrance to stimulate memory or senses, such as hearing, smell and touch, as an alternative to sight.

Horticultural therapy may include planning, planting and caring for the garden. These activities help with socialization, decision making and cognition. Therapy may also include weeding, watering and harvesting to help strengthen muscles, improve balance and increase endurance. These are just a few reasons why therapeutic gardens have gained popularity in health care settings.

When volunteering for the Denver Botanic Gardens, I met visitors from across the state who enjoyed programs for seniors and those with special needs. Although many programs were canceled last year, the Denver Botanic Gardens is providing limited programs this year while complying with state guidelines. For instance, the Chatfield Farms Veterans Program began accepting applications in mid-February to connect veterans to farming careers through a 21-week training session. In addition to building job skills, veterans have an opportunity to reconnect with nature and develop relationships with other service members.

SPARK!, a cultural program for people with memory loss, is offered in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association to provide participants with mild memory loss an opportunity to explore the world of plants in an interactive, virtual environment. Register online or call 720-865-3500 to participate in monthly sessions.

All of us can benefit from the therapeutic value of gardens. If you never gardened before or don’t have space, perhaps try a container garden. If gardening is not for you, simply walking through the park or enjoying plants at your local garden center could uplift your spirits.

Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.