What is social and therapeutic horticulture?

Nov 20, 2021

I write about Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) a lot on this website, so I thought it would be useful to explain a little more about what it is and how it is used.

A Nigella flower in the foreground with calendula in the background

The benefits of horticultural activities for people experiencing ill health (especially mental health) has been documented as far back as over 200 years and in a multitude of settings and situations such as hospitals, schools, prisons and even in the trenches of WW1.

It is now so widely accepted that green social prescribing projects are linking GPs and health professionals to community gardens and other green care providers as a means of early health intervention. Social and therapeutic horticulture is different from community gardening though and has been increasing in popularity since the 1980s.

The reason that STH differs from community gardening is because STH provides structured and outcomes focussed horticultural activities centred around clients’ specific needs and within in a social setting. Community gardening is less structured and in my experience the activities are more focused on the garden’s needs at that time. What this means in STH is that a trained practitioner works with individuals to use specific horticultural activities to help address a particular area of need, such as building confidence, raising self-esteem, learning techniques, improving balance, fitness or fine motor skills (to name a few). This is carried out in groups with other gardeners to increase social inclusion and support social skills.

STH is evidence-based and, when reading the evidence, the wealth of information is broad and the themes of STH as a significant factor in improving wellbeing is repeated time and again. You can find out more about this in reports from Trust Links, Thrive, Natural England and The Kings Fund as well as various other literature on the subject. Studies show quantitative and qualitative data which demonstrates significant reductions in symptoms of mental ill health as well as emotional, social and physical benefits. Through assessment and evaluation STH projects are now, more than ever, helping to build a bank of knowledge on this relatively new and trailblazing practice.

Used in this way, the garden offers a wealth of experiential and interactive opportunities to achieve feelings of calm and safety through our innate connection to nature. It also allows people to securely, and without the same pressure, exercise aspects of life which are more difficult in the outside world, such as making decisions, planning and having responsibilities. There are metaphors we can draw on in the garden which relate to life too, such as sowing seeds and new beginnings, weeding and letting things go. There is a strong focus on taking care of the garden and life within it, using organic, regenerative and permaculture principles, knowing that looking after the garden means we can also take care of ourselves.

The undertaking of STH is ideally compatible with building resilience, to help maintain good mental health whilst adapting to challenging circumstances in life. It also supports the recovery approach, emphasising identity through setting goals and fostering hope for the future, as well as nurturing relationships and taking part in meaningful activities. A well-designed STH programme reflects the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ promoted by the government and NHS and the techniques and skills learned there can have true, lasting positive effects.