Horticultural Therapy – How It Works

Posted by on Jun 4, 2017 in Frugal For Everyone, Gardening, Green Living, Health | 19 comments

Horticultural Therapy

The Pettengill Garden www.thenatureofthings.biz

This article – Horticultural Therapy – is a guest post by Stephen Pettengill, a Certified Horticultural Therapist. Let me give you a little bit of Stephen’s background in his own words:

“Growing up in southern Oregon, with ‘the woods’ right outside my back door, I developed an affinity for nature and outdoor activity.  There were caves to explore, tree forts to play in, streams, rivers and other adventures. I felt at home in nature, and loved the physicality of working outside. This led to a lifelong study of horticulture and design.

At an early stage in my career, I wanted to combine my interests in gardens with psychology; the adventure of the mind! I wanted to learn more about how best to create meaningful, even transformational interactions with the natural world, not just a pretty garden. I have an interdisciplinary degree (Business, Gerontology, and Environments) from Marylhurst University and at the age of 50 I completed an HT (Horticultural Therapy) program. Currently, I live in a community called Ananda, where I use my skills to help enhance the environment and organize community activities.” The Nature of Things

Horticultural Therapy For Seniors – How It Works.

‘True sanity is rooted in the natural world’ Andy Fisher, from Radical Eco-Psychology.

They say that gardeners live longer. True or not, gardeners are always looking ahead, adapting to changes and attuned to the slow rhythms of the natural world; things that bring quality of life.

Academics are working to understand the impact of nature on the human psyche, with research growing showing the effectiveness of engaging with the natural world.

Even small things make a difference – for instance:

  • Fish tanks in doctors’ offices are known to calm patients.
  • A study called ‘A Room with a View’ showed that prisoners who had windows in their cells had less anxiety and less violent behavior.
  • Realtors know that a tree lined street has intrinsic value to a neighborhood.
Horticultural Therapy

A quiet moment to reflect.

In 1984, Edward Wilson, a Harvard University conservationist, first coined the term Biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. The theory that we have an innate need to connect with nature and other forms of life is shared by a growing number of professionals.

Nature therapists say we have allowed ourselves to disconnect from our environment for a variety of reasons. This can lead to a host of physical, emotional, or mental issues. Social norms and lifestyles that are out of sync with laws of nature (sleep, food, sex, e.g.) come at a price to our health.

Additionally, a culture of hyper-individualism can foster disengagement from our surroundings, including other people. Isolation and loneliness are common issues among senior populations yet we live in a society that needs engaged elders.

On top of this we have an increasing technological society. A new challenge for humans is emerging that we barely understand (we often adopt new technologies before we know its full impact on us).

With so many changes going on it’s easy to become overwhelmed and lose our center.  ‘Getting grounded’ in the natural world is a way to help us transition from adulthood to elder-hood and possibly help heal a lifetime of being out of balance.

Horticultural Therapy

Senior Couple Just Moseying Along, Appreciating The Outdoors

What is Horticultural Therapy?

My passions are nature (includes food!) and psychology. Where these two intersect you can find several evolving fields of study and practice.

Environmental Psychology, Eco-Therapy, and Horticultural Therapy (HT) are disciplines that use plants and natural environments to help people become grounded, or rooted, in nature.

This practice of Horticultural Therapy has been around for centuries. Activities using plants can be adapted to fit many populations and treatment goals. An example: Following WWII plants were used to help vets in rehabilitation.

Similar to Recreation Therapy, Art Therapy or Music Therapy, Horticultural Therapy (HT) has 3 main purposes:

  • Rehabilitation – physical, mental, or emotional – usually in a hospital setting.
  • Social – socializing with others is important and therapeutic – used in various settings
  • Vocational – career training or simply a dedicated hobby or lifestyle.

Feeling out of sync? Try these simple exercises!

Here are some things you can do to be in harmony with Nature’s Laws:

  • Ecosystem awareness: Ecosystems are large networks of plants and animals including microorganisms. Your body is an ecosystem, so is a pond. Visualize how you are part of a much larger system and community.
  • Rhythm Re-boot: Daily and seasonal changes are often overlooked. Try walking slower than you normally do, as if you are not ‘going somewhere’ but just ambling along with no goal. This is harder than it sounds because we are always ‘on the go’. Note how you feel and what thoughts come up.
  • Discovery: Turn up your awareness of a place and ‘discover’ new things. One trick to staying young is to find delight in new things or surprises. In nature every new day offers new things and promises a discovery for those attuned to their changing environment.

With Nature in Mind

Stephen Pettengill

Back to me. While I may not have used the term Horticultural Therapy, I have long believed in the many benefits nature and gardens provide to seniors, both at home and in care facilities. I hope all seniors who are interested in gardening or enjoying nature have the opportunity to indulge. 

Talk to you again soon,


If you enjoyed this article, others will too. Please share.


  1. I love tinkering in my garden and playing with my flowers. Like hiking, such activities go a long way in keeping my mind in a good place.

  2. Allow me to recommend an alternative and eminently therapeutic pastime for getting in sync with Nature’s Laws: stargazing. Every year I myself track the arrival of Orion in the autumn and the slow fade of Sirius during the waning days of May. (I am making the all-important assumption that the nighttime sky where you live is sufficiently clear and dark to do this, which is unfortunately not the case in all too many places.)

    • Andy, it’s funny you should say that. When I was really sick and bed-ridden, there was one star that shone brighter than the rest of them. I used to focus on that star and it always gave me hope – so I definitely believe that stargazing can balance you. I’m not familiar with the constellations – never seem to be able to see what others do – but know that Nature, in all its forms – can rejuvenate us. 🙂

  3. I really do love being in nature and outdoors. It makes me feel so calm and peaceful. This is why I really love hiking or going for a walk, especially when I feel quite anxious or stressed.

  4. I love flowers and trees. They are beautiful and have a calming effect on me. As I live in an apartment and I’m away quite a bit, I don’t have live plants. But I have baskets of artificial flowers and I enjoy them, too. The colors alone perk me up.

  5. As a side note, I would think that gardeners live longer lives because they aren’t sitting for a living like so many of the rest of us these days. They say that sitting is the new smoking.

    Living in a city, I don’t see as many plants and nature as others get to. And I will start craving it. I’ll tell my husband that I need to take a day trip just so I can see some nature.

    • Hi Erica, the fact that you need to go out and experience nature once in a while rather supports the fact that we are hardwired to need the connection. More and more people are starting to realize that.
      A new Hospice has just been completed in our area with 10 suites, each suite having large patio doors that open to a beautifully landscaped yard. I know this must have a calming effect on all those involved.
      BTW – I haven’t hear about sitting being the new smoking but can certainly understand that view. 🙂

  6. I was born and raised being in the woods. Now, working in the city I can sometimes feel the anxiety it can produce. Luckily, for me 10 minute drive outside of Albany, and you are in the woods. This is my place of refuge to get away from the hectic pace of city living. I can understand why Nature Therapy can work.

    • Hi William, lucky for you that you are still so close to a natural environment to help you recharge. One time I had a job that I hated but looking out the window I saw this beautiful scenery which helped me see it through. Then I got transferred to an area that had no window and let me tell you, I didn’t last long there before I quit the job.

  7. I have never heard the term Nature Therapy but it makes perfect sense to me. I looked long and hard to find my new home in Oregon that is tucked into the corner of a huge forest. I love taking my dog on the trails and just being outside. Now that the warm weather has finally arrived I’m going to give container gardening a try. My neighbor had the most amazing plants on her deck, but they all died in the unexpected ice storm we were hit with this winter so she’s starting from scratch and promised to give me a few tips. 🙂

    • Marquita, your new place sounds lovely and I’ll bet that you do feel more peaceful and ‘all’s right with the world (at least yours) after walking one of the trails with your dog. Nature and pets, what more could you want. I’m also happy that you found a nice gardening neighbour to help you get started – good luck with that – hope your first results will be fantastic. 🙂

  8. I do believe in, and practice horticultural therapy on a personal level. I have created a welcoming feel to my yard for humans and nature, and get great joy from the furry and feathered friends who visit.

    • Oh Doreen, I’m so happy to hear that. I know that I love seeing deer come into our yard – I think they’re a beautiful animal and though I know farmers and gardeners aren’t supposed to appreciate them, I do so I’m glad that others also love the furry and feathered friends who visit. They do add to a ssnse of well-being.

  9. It should work for the simple reason that nature has that impact on most people. Personally get the benefits you mention if I go for a long walk along the beach.

    • Catarina, I do believe that taking time to enjoy a natural setting, whether it’s walking on a beach, in a garden, or enjoying a moonlit night, it calms the mind and helps you refocus on what’s important. Thanks for the comment.

  10. There is something rather special about “the outside”. I always feel much better after spending time outside whether my garden or the park. My husband and me have very little time to garden. I believe this will change – one day we will invest more.

    • Phoenicia, I can well appreciate that with both of you working and having a young family, gardening is something for the future. A walk in the park will have to do for now – so glad you enjoy that.

  11. Nature therapy is a new term for me, but I do believe nature and gardening bring many benefits. I know I feel calmer and happier after spending time in nature or a beautiful garden, or after doing my own garden work.

    • Donna, one of the things that fascinates me and calms me right down is seeing the many different colours of green. We have a lot of different trees on our property and it really is amazing how the greens are so different and yet complement each other – totally supports my faith in creation – that can’t just have happened by chance.

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