Horticulture Therapy: Gardening As a Cure for Our Ailments

Reader Contribution by Susan O'Brien
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Nothing feels quite like being outside and working with your hands in the soil and with plants. The type of garden does not really matter; it could be a vegetable garden, flowerbed, fruit tree orchard, or water garden. It seems that the combination of being outside, personally connecting with nature, and seeing visible results from our work has a positive effect on us. But are there more benefits to gardening than simply making us “feel good?”

There are the obvious benefits of gardening which we all know about: gardens provide healthful food, they can be aesthetically pleasing, and they save on food costs. But Gerber (2011) points out that gardening has many overall benefits that we commonly do not think about from it reducing stress to improving the environment. Going further, some other not so obvious benefits include teaching patience as gardening is on nature’s schedule; as the saying goes, “watching a plant grow does not make it grow any faster.” ‘Unplugging’ and disconnecting from technology is frequently encouraged now. Creativity is encouraged through planning the layout of gardens and flowerbeds. Lastly, gardening provides a good form of exercise because it burns calories while strengthening and stretching muscles.

Researchers have found that there actually is truth to the idea of gardening being therapeutic. Studies have shown that gardening does more than makes us feel good or produces fruits and vegetables for us to eat.  Gardening, also known as horticulture therapy, has been used by occupational therapists to assist the elderly with dementia and promote the physical and social health of those with developmental disabilities.  As an occupational therapy student, I have learned that one of my professors successfully uses gardening to help veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of gardening as a therapy. In a preliminary study by Detweiler et al. (2015), horticultural therapy may have been responsible for reduced stress and depression, increased quality of life, and avoidance of substance abuse in veterans. Wang and Glicksman (2013) discovered a long list of benefits to older adults when they garden, including providing new learning, staying connected to their roots, socialization, and improving their well-being. Gonzalez and Kirkevold (2013) performed a review of studies to learn of the benefits of sensory gardens and horticultural therapy for those with dementia. The authors concluded that horticultural therapy may improve an individual’s sense of well-being, decrease troublesome behavior, improve sleep, reduce the number of serious falls, and improve the individual’s use of psychotropic medications.

Camic (2013) conducted a literature review of studies which used horticulture therapy as a mental health intervention. The results appear quite promising in reducing an individual’s anxiety and depression. Participants of the gardening therapy had also been noted to have improved emotional well-being, social interaction, and physical health, as well as the chance for career development.

Somewhat similar to Camic’s study, Park and VanLeit (2012) identified that adults with developmental disabilities often have cognitive impairments as well, which further complicates their treatments. These adults tend to have greater health risks than the general population, such as diabetes, sedentary lifestyles, and cardiovascular disease. The researchers performed a study on a gardening program for adults with developmental disabilities and saw an improvement in physical, social, and mental health as well as overall well-being.

While many of us garden for the simple pleasure of it, it is being increasingly used as a therapeutic treatment for those with disabilities. Horticulture therapy has been shown to assist those with physical, social, and mental needs.  It may not be the ‘cure all,’ but it has its place as benefiting many forms of disabilities. It appears that over time, horticulture therapy will become a more commonly used therapy for what ails a great deal of the population. For many of us, relieving stress, providing nutritious food, and receiving a sense of reward for hard work is enough of a satisfying accomplishment.

Photo by Fotolia/EduardSV: There are many benefits to spending time in a garden, even beyond having fresh, healthful produce!


Camic, P. M. (2013). Gardening as a mental health intervention: A review. Mental Health Review Journal, 18(4), 214-225. doi: 10.1108/MHRJ-02-2013-0007

Detweiler, M. B., Self, J. A., Lane, S., Spencer, L., Lutgens, B., Kim, D…Lehman, L. (2015). Horticultural therapy: A pilot study on modulating cortisol levels and indices of substance craving, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and quality of life in veterans. Alternative Therapies, 21(4), 36-41.

Gerber, J. (2011, March 28). 5 benefits of gardening.

Gonzalez, M. T. & Kirkevold, M. (2013). Benefits of sensory garden and horticultural activities in dementia care: A modified scoping review. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 23, 2698-2715. doi: 10.1111/jocn.12388

Park, H. & VanLeit, B. (2012). The meaning of gardening for adults with developmental disabilities. Special Interest Section Quarterly: Developmental Disabilities, 35(1), 1-3.

Wang, D. & Glicksman, A. (2013). “Being grounded”: Benefits of gardening for older adults in low-income housing. Journal of Housing for the Elderly, 27, 89-104. doi: 10.1080/02763893.2012.754816

Susan O’Brien is an occupational therapy student in the master’s program at Utica College.