Horticultural therapy

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Health-care professionals have come to realize that horticulture is not just a rewarding pastime but working with soil, seeds and plants can be an enriching and curative experience. The powers of nature, as seen in the growth of a plant, can be a great teacher. The life cycle of plants provides us with hope of life renewed and a chance to begin again.

Homewood Health Centre in Guelph has three registered horticultural therapists that provide a range of plant and nature-related activities and classes in the state-of-the-art Conservatory and classroom, or outdoors in the raised therapeutic garden beds, arboretum and gazebo area. Homewood specialized programs offer treatment to all Canadians coping with addictions; depression and anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; eating and mood disorders; dementias in older adults and long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia.

In its simplest form, horticultural therapy is a therapeutic process that uses plants and other horticultural activities to improve an individual’s quality of life. Horticulture provides excellent stimuli for the senses Ð sight, taste, touch and smell. Using living material that requires nurturing and care, patients take part in activities that stimulate thought, exercise the body and encourage awareness of the external environment.

After assessing patients’ cognitive, behavioural, physical and social skills, therapists design a variety of horticultural tasks and activities that are meaningful and challenging to the individual, promote self-esteem and teach positive leisure skills that support the recovery process. Many of these activities also provide opportunities for creativity and imagination.

Patients are encouraged to share their feelings and emotions through group and individual interaction. The therapists build rapport with patients while working with selected plants, evaluating the patients’ ability to function socially through group work and to comprehend a variety of tasks.

Horticultural therapy is highly effective with elderly patients who enjoy both physical and psychological benefits. Working with plants and soil helps to increase dexterity, improve circulation and develop upper and lower body strength. Group activities enhance their social and communicative skills. The smell, touch and feel of the plants help to reduce anxiety and stress. Depression and anxiety are alleviated and activities tailored specifically to their needs help to build self-esteem and confidence.

Planning is the essential element to a successful horticultural program. The first step in the planning process is understanding each patient’s diagnosis. Once you understand the characteristics of the disease, you then know how to use horticulture as an intervention to promote a quality of life and dignity.

For example, elderly individuals who experience anger and anxiety benefit from activities such as digging, hoeing, pruning and smashing pots, which help them to release anger and aggression. Activities are designed to suit the mental and physical abilities of the individual. With the elderly, a session of no longer than 30 minutes is recommended to ensure success.

Horticultural therapy has proven beneficial to patients with other disorders. As they care for plants, addiction patients learn about self-nurturing, interpersonal relationships, co-operation, giving up control and learning to listen Ð skills they can apply to their life and their relationships with family and friends.

For patients recovering from post-traumatic stress, the Conservatory offers a safe and inviting sanctuary rich with lush plants, warmth and natural sunlight. Fragrances such as lavender, geranium and neroli are uplifting and calming and help overcome anxiety and depression.

A variety of plants and hands-on activities offer patients an opportunity to experience the world of nature. Through class projects and garden activities, clients celebrate their strengths and successes. They learn to relax, develop positive social interaction with others and have fun.

Daily horticultural activities help balance psychotherapeutic sessions with creative activities and hands-on projects that stimulate the imagination. Psychological burials Ð in which patients bury, burn or plant their pain, are often beneficial to trauma patients, helping them to symbolically move from being a victim to a survivor.

Patients suffering from depression feel their spirits lift in the greenhouse setting and constructive activities help to channel negative emotions leaving them with feelings of optimism, confidence and self-worth.

In planting fruits and vegetables, patients with eating disorders learn about nutrition and also the importance of nurturing their bodies and soul. Schizophrenic patients who garden gain a stronger hold on reality and greater control of their environment.

Horticulture therapy is on the threshold of a great future in health care. Discovering the wonders of nature can represent a profound change of lifestyle for people who are learning to feel positive about themselves. By nurturing plants and developing an awareness of the environment, they are able to take these newly found skills and renewed energy back to their families, as well as to the community they once rejected.