The therapeutic nature of gardening by Lynne Maclagan of Papaver Gardening
Tending to a crop of salads and harvesting some for your lunch. Building a new raised bed with fellow volunteers and filling it with soil. Watering your seedlings and watching them become big, healthy flowers that you can cut and share. Gardening has long been recognised for its therapeutic benefits. Through gardening, we are not only improving our physical health, but we’re also improving our mental wellbeing.
Physical benefits of gardening:
Improved diet, if you are eating what you grow.
Improved fitness and muscle tone.
Lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Improved joint health.
Benefits of gardening on your overall wellbeing:
Building new social connections when gardening with a group.
Distraction from our worries and life’s stresses.
Gives you a quiet place for contemplation.
A boost in self-esteem and pride as you nurture plants.
Adapted from Trellis Scotland’s The Difference Gardening Makes.
With support from the Dunoon Community Development Trust, in November 2023, I joined fellow horticulturalists, horticultural therapists and community gardeners, as well as mental health nurses and occupational therapists, for Trellis Scotland’s Gardening for Wellbeing conference in Perth. Compiled from the talks, conversations and workshops I attended, here are three special insights for those delivering gardening for wellbeing projects in Dunoon.
1. Collaboration and community
“Connectedness and support are as important for us as they are for our plants. Without them, we struggle, but with them, we flourish,” said New-York based Anne Meore who is a therapeutic gardener with a background in social work.
Keynote speaker at the Trellis conference, Anne Meore, has created two therapeutic gardens: The Garden of Hope at Good Samaritan Hospital and The G.R.O.W. Healing Garden at the J.J. Peters Veteran's Administration Medical Center, both in New York.
The Garden of Hope began as a productive garden to grow fresh food for the hospital and local food banks. Before long, the garden became much more than a food-growing space. Anne encouraged staff, visitors and patients to come and help tend to it, because she knew about the wider health and wellbeing benefits that come from the act of growing food. Physical therapists, including Anne’s daughter and co-keynote speaker Dr Christine Meore, use the space to encourage their patients to try exercises as they pick beans and water plants or manoeuvre around different paths.
While gardeners can interact with each other, there are also quiet spaces for contemplation and sensory routes around the space, including a plant tunnel. Nurses, doctors and other hospital staff can pick fresh produce or find a quiet place to sit, helping to reduce their overall stress and give them a nurturing break from their work.
Nurturing healthy relationships
What stood out to me most during Anne’s presentation was the emphasis on the relationships you are nurturing through a garden project. Nurturing people-to-plant relationships is a core benefit of the experience; your volunteer gardener connects and collaborates with nature. They benefit from the calming effect of being in nature and taking part in a soothing physical activity.
But you are also nurturing people-to-people relationships. At the J.J. Peters Veterans’ project, Anne witnessed how new gardeners soon become experienced gardeners keen to show new people how to deadhead flowers or water their crops. Anne explained that a gardening community is nurtured as much as the plants are.
Find inspiration from Anne’s gardens:
Garden of Hope website and video https://www.goodsamhosp.org/garden-of-hope
J.J. Peters Veterans’ garden project website and video https://www.nybg.org/planttalk/thrive-program-invites-veterans-to-explore-the-healing-aspects-of-gardening/
2. The power of plant metaphors
“Companion planting is a method of growing different plants adjacent to one another for the benefit of one or both of the companions.” RHS
Jan Cameron, author of The Garden Cure, is experienced in community education, horticulture and mental health, trauma recovery in particular. During an informal talk, Jan described the usefulness of gardening metaphors when supporting people recovering from trauma and other mental health conditions.
Companion planting, which many gardeners will understand as the method of growing plants in a community for the benefit of one or both, is one of those metaphors which Jan believes works particularly well.
In our gardens, we may plant nasturtiums next to our peas to distract insects away from them. Or we might plant some summer savoury, a tasty companion which can be harvested and served along with our peas. Companion planting, Jan explained, can also be applied to people.
In one gardening project, Jan noticed how a shared task brought six quiet individuals together. This small team joined forces to move a large boulder from a field into a new rock garden. Moving the boulder required teamwork and collaboration. It was messy, slippery and needed huge physical effort. These cautious individuals soon became a cohesive group, each offering suggestions. They got into a rhythm, each used their strengths to motivate the team and organise the task. After this experience, their individual anxieties and fears around being with people had softened. They were soon sharing jokes over their tea break and reminiscing over what they had achieved.
“I want to grow beside people who like me, trust me, have confidence in me, and believe in my ability to flourish – people who value me.” Jan Cameron, The Nature Cure (2020: 53)
3. Not all gardens are therapeutic gardens, and that’s ok
Leila Alcade, co-founder of the Spanish Association for Social and Therapeutic Horticulture, led an informal discussion about what makes a therapeutic garden. Leila’s talk outlined the current position in Spain, where the Government is supporting care homes to look after and develop therapeutic gardens, but without guidance around what makes a garden a therapeutic garden. The Association for Social and Therapeutic Horticulture have stepped in by creating a process for certifying therapeutic gardens.
Healing garden hierarchy
What is useful for our community groups and garden projects to know is that many different types of healing gardens exist, each with their own purpose and benefits. Leila refers us to Elizabeth Diehl’s 2017 paper ‘Do all gardens heal the same?’, which outlines the different types of healing gardens.
“Most people recognise terms of healing such as therapeutic, restorative, sensory, and enabling, but are hard-pressed to describe their differences in a garden setting. It is important for therapists, designers, and other [interested parties] to properly distinguish and describe the variations of garden types, especially as they relate to their own work and that of allied professionals, the needs of clients, and the development of additional therapeutic spaces.” Elizabeth Diehl in ‘Do all gardens heal the same?’ (2017:68)
Therapeutic gardens, Leila explained, are designed to reach a specific group and produce a measurable outcome, which could be related to the treatment of a disease or disorder.
If you are thinking about setting up a garden for the wellbeing or health benefit of your group, it would be worth looking at Diehl’s hierarchy of healing gardens. This will give you a steer on what different types of gardens may try to achieve. Perhaps your healing garden is a sanctuary garden or a sensory garden. Maybe you’re creating a demonstration garden. Not all gardens are therapeutic gardens, and that’s ok.
Setting up your own garden project?
“Therapeutic gardening is the use of garden space and/or activities to help people enhance their health and wellbeing.” Trellis Scotland
Dunoon Community Development Trust is a member of Trellis, Scotland’s gardening for wellbeing organisation. If you are thinking of setting up a garden or looking to engage your group with gardening, here are some helpful resources to get you started.
Get involved with existing growing projects
You don’t always need to start a new garden. Perhaps there’s a project already underway that you or your group could participate in.
Local garden projects:
Dunoon Community Development Trust’s Grow Food, Grow Dunoon
Local growing projects in development:
Add your garden project in Dunoon to our list, email Hannah Clinch information and engagement coordinator. firstname.lastname@example.org
Browse our latest volunteering opportunities>
News: Trellis, Scotland’s gardening for wellbeing organisation, and Thrive, the society for horticultural therapy based in England, are creating a professional body for Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in the UK. Read more about it.