My journey to Social and Therapeutic Horticulture

Feb 13, 2021

I distinctly remember the first time I noticed the significant positive effect that gardening has on my body and mind. I even spoke it out loud at the time. I also remember years later when I realised how profound that effect is. This catalysed my journey of learning about the therapeutic affordances of horticulture.

I suppose my statement above reads as though I was completely ignorant of how gardening made me feel and then one day, bam! I suddenly knew. But that would be a misrepresentation. It was more that I was subconsciously aware but on this particular occasion its effects were so strong it pushed its way through into my consciousness.

A red poppy flower with sunlight shining through the petals

The first occasion was on a Saturday morning around 10 years ago, and I was having a hard time with a few things but especially something at work. That particular morning I was stressed and upset. But that day I was also getting together with my family to help out in my neice’s garden. After being there for about 15 minutes, planting out peonies, I felt completely different – calm, contented, happy – it was like a magical injection of peace. I wish i could have measured my blood pressure and cortizol levels right there because I feel certain they would have dropped measurably.

The second event was in more recent years when I was selling edible flowers. I won’t go into detail because I’ve written about it before (see the links at the end of the article) but temporarily, the healing powers of gardening was lost to me and it really wasn’t good. Except it was, because it brought me here. About 18 months ago I started looking up information about nature and wellbeing, ecotherapies and therapeutic horticulture because I wanted to understand what was going on in my brain and why was it so powerful.

The knowledge behind these effects of nature was a mystery to me at the time. I knew it worked, I just didn’t know how or why. I didn’t know of the studies, observations and theories or the evidence increasingly being collected or how that knowledge is applied, it seemed all very abstract.

The mystery began to unravel when I took some introductory online courses with Thrive. What they explained made so much sense and it all started falling into place. The power of nature and of nurturing living things isn’t abstract at all. It’s genetic, physical, psychological and chemical and it has been used intentionally for hundreds of years. Of course, this is why gardening had come through for me, smoothed out jagged edges of anxiety and brought clarity and calm, over and over.

A polytunnel in the sunshine with plants in the foreground

Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) draws on a number of factors which practitioners use to create gardening and horticultural activities and programmes to address specific support needs and goals. Realising that I could potentially utilize the kinds of benefits that nature had afforded me and offer it as a therapeutic process for others to improve their emotional and physical wellbeing was transformative.

From that point I just wanted to learn more and continued my studies with Thrive, completing the Award in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Programme Development (I’m currently awaiting the results of my final assignment). Last autumn I began volunteering with an STH project at a local community garden, I have visited other STH gardens and met practitioners, become a Mental Health First Aider and I’m continually devouring books, talks and articles on this fascinating subject.

For anyone who has noticed my absence on this blog and my quieter social media, this is why. It has been a busy but incredibly fulfilling time and there will be more to talk about in my continued journey to STH in the future.

My dad has always said “You can’t have any worries when you’re in the garden”, which turns out has more than a nugget of truth. There’s a whole world of therapeutic practice, research and life changing experiences happening because of being in the garden.

Previous posts mentioned above

Gardening is good for you… until it isn’t
Changes in 2020