In a fast-paced world dictated by technology we have a tendency to turn to the natural world for solace. The calming character of nature has been known to humans for centuries and has recently developed into a new area of study – therapeutic horticulture. Although horticulture was used as far back as 2000BC to promote calmness, official studies into the mental benefits of gardening began in the 19th century. Since then, greater research has begun to suggest gardens are not just good-looking, they can be beneficial to our physical and mental wellbeing.
What is therapeutic horticulture?
The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA) defines Horticultural Therapy as a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities and the garden landscape to promote well-being for its participants. Some studies suggest that mental health and wellbeing can be greatly improved through the use of horticultural therapy as views of nature have positive, psychological responses, physiological impacts (lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension), and a reduced need for medical treatment occurs. Even garden soil alone has been shown to be beneficial to wellbeing just by breathing in, playing in or digging in dirt.
Physically, gardening is a great way to stay fit and active. Whether you have a large lawn to mow or a small herb garden to tend, every activity can improve fine motor skills, balance and endurance. Along with physical benefits, studies have demonstrated countless mental benefits that stem from the peaceful nature of gardening and the purpose of facilitating the growth of plants.
What makes a therapeutic garden?
Therapeutic gardens are designed with the visitor in mind. Each area is created to facilitate interaction and engage the senses to allow for a more complete immersion into nature. Accessibility is therefore a priority, encouraging easy gardening or physical interaction with the plants. A visitor or the gardener themselves should be able to see or study, touch, smell and even taste the plants while hearing the sounds of nature around them. It’s important to consider universal accessibility for all ages and simplicity in design, providing a comfortable environment for convenience and enjoyment. This includes the avoidance of hazardous chemicals (especially in cases where taste is included in the sensory experience), as well as providing shade and protective structures for both people and plants. The purpose is as much focused on the plants and their positions as how one can experience them.
How can your garden help you?
Creating your own therapeutic garden has incredible benefits for you and can bring your family closer to nature. By designing, building and maintaining a therapeutic garden in your outdoor space, your garden can transform from an artwork to an experience for visitors of all ages.
Design: The first step towards a therapeutic garden is the design. Consider each of the five senses and how you can combine plants and features to include sensory stimulation. Bright colours and a variety of shapes and heights in plants, as well as unique shapes and objects in focal points, can make the garden visually stimulating. For touch, textures are important (soft leaves, crunchy bark, running water), as are pathways and raised beds so that all the plants and features are easy to reach. Smell and taste can often go hand in hand by using fragrant herbs and fruits or edible flowers. Sound is slightly more difficult to incorporate through plants, so objects can be used to bring sound into your garden. A water feature as a focal point can include the soothing sounds of running water, a bird feeder can attract beautiful chirping birds, and a variety of flowers invites the buzz of bees. It is important to combine various senses with each design choice and aim to make the garden an activity in itself.