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Let’s Learn About Horticultural Therapy

By guest contributor Morghan Brett, BAH, HT, MEd candidate (she/her)

Morghan is currently a Peer Assistant with Summit Housing and Outreach Programs (SHOP) working with the Health and Wellness team to facilitate virtual recreational groups. Through this role, she collaborates with Helen Stephenson, from Halton Food, to maintain a SHOP community garden.

Morghan received her undergraduate degree from Queen’s University in Psychology and Sociology. She continued on to earn a certificate in Horticultural Therapy and will be attending graduate school in the fall at the University of Toronto to study Social Justice Education and Educational Policy. Morghan has a passion for education. Her main areas of interest are in disability studies, Indigenous studies, food security, urban agriculture and sustainability. She hopes to utilize her unique background and interests within the field of education.

I would like to thank Halton Food for the opportunity to share a passion of mine.

After I completed my undergraduate degree, I found myself working in a very clinical and  institutionalized setting in the mental health field. I was confined to my cubicle and computer monitor. Oddly enough, even as a self-identified introvert, I began to crave social interaction and collaboration. I decided to leave that environment to focus on myself and discover what my needs and passions are. In order to strive for better career aspirations, I sought the help of personality tests, self-reflection, career counsellors and Google for answers.

Sometimes it’s hard because as humans we crave unequivocal results. 

We desire concrete and absolute answers to the questions that we ask in life. Nonetheless, we rarely receive such satisfaction. I learned that my career aspirations could not be easily defined. They were abstract and for me, I now know that innovation is key. After I was able to accept this, I worked on defining a few essential values pertinent to me. Then, I finally took a break from analyzing everything and went back to the basics; no Google, just myself. I examined the constants in my life, the people, objects, opinions, and realized I found comfort in them. To me, comfort brings me happiness and to pursue something that brings me pure joy, simultaneously provides comfort. One of the constants in my life that I discovered was nature. I grew up in the country and when I moved away to the city for school, I brought parts of the country with me to form my own urban farm. I nurtured a collection of houseplants, covered my walls in dried flowers and nature prints, grew various vegetables, installed crafty watering systems, and propagated my plants like no tomorrow. I did all this because I genuinely loved it and it made me happy. It was during this time that I made the connection between nurturing my plants and passion to help others.

I am a nurturer by nature.

By luck, I stumbled across an article on Horticultural Therapy (HT), probably while researching something about one of my plants. The American Horticultural Therapy Association defines Horticultural Therapy as “the use of plants and gardening activities as vehicles in professionally conducted programs in therapy and rehabilitation”.  Essentially, using nature to heal. The practice of Horticultural Therapy allows for clients to utilize a client centered model of care to maximize potential for a comprehensive treatment plan, focusing on mental, emotional and physical aspects of health. The client becomes an active participant in their care plan by working closely with a horticultural therapist to establish their own personal goals. The horticultural therapist works within an interdisciplinary team to manufacture a treatment plan that will maximize individual recovery. Horticultural Therapy is said to be “a clinically validated, [and] experiential-based profession that uses nature and adjunctive therapies to encourage clients to engage in the natural world” (Hewson, 2017). To do so, the client works with living materials that require “nurturing and cultivation” which in turn “helps clients develop new ways of thinking about life and self-care” (Hewson, 2017).

For example, the program facilitator for my horticultural therapy certificate program shared a story related to overwatering. He highlighted the similarities between an overwatered plant and an individual suffering from an alcohol dependency addiction. For both, “overwatering” the body and plant can result in similar outcomes. Just like the roots of the plant, the body can experience comparable “rot” hidden beneath the surface, which can over time visibly manifest on the body, similar to the drooping of leaves on an overwatered plant. Another example includes the pruning and maintenance of plants. Without proper care, plant material can become quite overgrown and messy. Similarly, without proper self-care and hygiene an individual can become unkempt and dishevelled.

Beyond these therapeutic lessons, Horticultural Therapy is able to enhance and evaluate an individual’s cognitive, physical, behavioural and social skills. Through horticultural activities, cognition can be evaluated by observing a client’s ability to comprehend verbal or written instructions as well as gauge memory recall. Physically, client’s skills can be assessed based on observing motor skills when tasks are being performed. Behavioural and social skills can be calculated through monitoring a client’s attitude and social interaction with others. Based on these original observations and trial and error, the client and therapist are able to alter the complexity of the horticultural tasks in order to accommodate for individual needs. If a client has restricted mobility, and there are resources to eliminate these barriers, raised garden beds can be installed to help this client achieve success within the HT program. Tools can also be adjusted in order extend a client’s range of motion.

Horticultural activities can occur outside of a garden environment. 

As we know, in Canada, we do not have access to outdoor garden spaces all year long and some clients don’t even have access to these spaces at all. Accommodation is essential when it comes to designing a successful therapeutic program. Year-round activities include card making, transplanting potted plants, plant propagation, designing terrariums, nature walks, field trips to gardens and festivals, drying flowers, drying herbs, creating holiday displays, infusing oils and vinegars for culinary purposes, installing bird feeders, growing herbs indoors and collecting horticultural materials to use for various crafts – to name a few.

Horticultural Therapy truly has the ability to extend beyond the scope of its therapeutic value for the clients participating in the program. On a larger scale, Horticultural Therapy overlaps with topics such as food security, urban agriculture and sustainability. A perfect example of this is my current position with SHOP. Prior to COVID19, the SHOP community garden was a space for clients to gather together to experience the therapeutic benefits of Horticultural Therapy as well as participate in sustainable practices through growing local/fresh produce, while working towards ensuring food security for themselves and their families. Clients would experience the whole growing process, from seed to plate. It was a space for learning, personal development as well as ensuring their own health and well-being.

For me, this position and my past education has inspired me to follow my various passions, specifically, within social justice education and Horticultural Therapy. I am finally excited about my future and the future of the interdisciplinary field of horticultural therapy. I am thrilled to see where my passion takes me next.

Special thank you to Mitchell Hewson, Jane Dougan, the SHOP staff and, of course, Helen Stephenson and the Halton Food Staff.

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