Can Gardening Help Heal the Troubled Mind?

Posted by kristin hutchins on Jun 6, 2013 11:30:00 AM

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If you haven't noticed, gardens are popping up in some unconventional places – from prison yards to retirement and veteran homes to programs for troubled youth.


Most are handy sources of fresh and local food, but increasingly they're also an extension of therapy for people with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.


It's called horticultural therapy. Some doctors, psychologists and occupational therapists are now at work to test whether building, planting, and harvesting a garden can be a therapeutic process in its own right.


Horticulture therapy dates back to Socrates, but it didn't become a scientific pursuit until the 18th century. That's when Benjamin Rush, a psychiatrist and Declaration of Independence cosignatory, began documenting how gardening benefited his mentally ill patients.


Much of the science behind just how gardening affects the mind and brain still remains a mystery. What scientists do know is that gardening reduces stress and calms the nerves. It decreases cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in stress response. So what about the biological mechanism behind mental disorders? 


A 2011 study at a juvenile rehabilitation center in southwestern Ohio with a gardening program showed that horticulture therapy helped the kids see themselves in a more positive light and helped them better manage their emotional and behavioral problems. And most of the kids said they would continue gardening after the program, according to the findings.


Programs like a camp for troubled teens in Hawaii, called Pacific Quest believe the garden is a beneficial tool to emotionally engage kids.


Students — many with psychological issues from trauma, adoption, depression — band together and run a garden from the seed to the dinner plate. "They are introduced to the garden by eating the food planted by a camper, who was in their shoes just a few months ago," Travis Slagle, a Horticultural Therapy Association member and land supervisor for Pacific Quest, says. 


Horticulture therapy offers at least one big advantage for the kids: The garden setting never changes. This gives them ample time to connect with their surroundings and feel at home.


"With the garden, you're living in a place and learning about the community and building a community," he says. That stable environment can help the kids let their guard down.

flower garden ideas

Students build the garden beds, plant the seeds, care for the seedlings, cook food from the garden and even come up with flower garden ideas. This is all with minimal lawn care advice from the staff. The teens learn how to problem solve on their own, as well. Slagle says they build rock walls for support and plant companion plants for certain veggies or fruit. They end up garden designers in a short amount of time.


"They can see the parallel of the garden and relate it to their own lives," he says. "It provides ways to engage in conversation and life lessons." The kids, who meet with counselors and therapists regularly throughout the process, are learning to prepare for the moment but also to plan for the future, he says. "Doing both at the same time requires maturity, and wisdom and that's something the garden brings out," he says.


The kids take the extra passion fruit, kale, onions, carrots, beets, bananas, and pineapples to the local farmer's market to sell. The profit is donated to a local charity. "The garden allows them to recognize that it's not something that's just going to benefit themselves," he says. "It teaches that in an experiential way."


You may not have a troubled mind like some of these examples but it is a huge advantage to get out and garden! I know it is my favorite past time. Who agrees? Let us know in the comments of this blog.

Tags: garden designers, flower garden ideas, lawn care advice

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