Gardens and landscapes have long been designed as sanctuaries and retreats from the stresses of life – from great urban green spaces such as Central Park in New York to the humblest suburban backyard. But beyond the passive enjoyment of a garden or of being in nature more generally, researchers have also studied the role of actively caring for plants as a therapeutic and educational tool.
“Therapeutic horticulture” and “horticultural therapy” have become recognised treatments for stress and depression, which have served as a healing aid in settings ranging from prisons and mental health treatment facilities to schools and hospitals.
Gardening and school
Studies of school gardening programs – which usually centre on growing food – show that students who have worked on designing, creating and maintaining gardens develop more positive attitudes about health, nutrition and the consumption of vegetables.
They also score better on science achievement, have better attitudes about school, and improve their interpersonal skills and classroom behaviour.
Research on students confirms that gardening leads to higher levels of self-esteem and responsibility. Research suggests that incorporating gardening into a school setting can boost group cohesiveness.
Gardening and mental health
Tailored gardening programs have been shown to increase quality of life for people with chronic mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
Another study on the use of therapeutic horticulture for patients with clinical depression sought to understand why gardening programs were effective in lessening patient experience of depression. They found that structured gardening activities gave patients existential purpose. Put simply, it gave their lives meaning.
In jails and corrective programs, horticultural therapy programs have been used to give inmates positive, purposeful activities that lessen aggression and hostility during and after incarceration.
In one detailed study from a San Francisco program, involvement in therapeutic horticulture was particularly effective in improving psychosocial functioning across prison populations (although the benefits were not necessarily sustained after release.)
Gardening has been shown to help improve the lives of military veterans and homeless people. Various therapeutic horticulture programs have been used to help people with learning difficulties, asylum seekers, refugees and victims of torture.