Notes from the Field

Horticultural therapy: What is it and Why is it Important?

By Matt DelSesto

While many people have experienced the healing qualities of gardening throughout human history, today there is a growing movement to purposefully harness the power of people-plant interactions— especially in the field of horticultural therapy.  As an organization that provides therapeutic and vocational horticulture training to our incarcerated neighbors, The New Garden Society is inspired by methods and best practices of the horticultural therapy profession.

Horticultural therapy (related to the fields of eco-therapy and green care) is a process that engages a client in horticultural activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific and documented treatment goals.  In an era of rapid urbanization and social fragmentation, horticultural therapy offers innovative pathways for personal and social transformation— through promoting ongoing personal development of clients and increasing effectiveness of institutions that care for sick, aging, vulnerable, or marginalized people in society.  

Horticultural therapy as a profession is typically distinguished from the more general practice of designing therapeutic gardens or horticultural spaces.  Landscape architects and horticulturalists seek to work with the healing or restorative power of plants for specific sites, but horticultural therapy is the daily work of creating treatment objectives and innovative programing for a specific population, institution, or client.  

As a professional practice, horticultural therapy happens in a number of settings including psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes or assisted living facilities, group homes, day treatment programs, physical rehabilitation centers, vocational and recreational programs for visually or hearing impaired persons, addiction recovery programs, and correctional facilities.  

In horticultural therapy practice, a therapist co-designs (with input from other members of treatment team and/or the client) treatment plans to meet the needs of a client.  Treatment goals or outcomes might include development in cognitive, psychological, social, and physical capacities—and typically include institutional collaborations or interventions.  Horticultural activities are planned for an individual or group to meet specific treatment goals or outcomes and could include digging, weeding, transplanting, landscape design and construction, seeding, harvesting, watering, food preparation, or making horticultural products. Central to all horticultural therapy activities is the evolving needs of program participants.   

One good resource for further exploring horticultural therapy is the American Horticultural Therapy Association(AHTA)—the only national organization committed to developing the theory, research, and practice of horticultural therapy in the United States.  While the organization was founded in 1973, today AHTA defines and encourages pursuit of outstanding standards of practice, disseminates critical knowledge to diverse audiences, and promotes excellence in clinical, professional, educational, and research achievement.

Matt is currently in the Sociology doctoral program at Boston College and is a horticultural therapist.  He previously studied horticultural therapy at The New York Botanical Garden and interned with the Horticultural Society of New York's GreenHouse program at Rikers Island correctional facilities in New York City.   Matt joined The New Garden Society’s board of directors in May of 2016.