THE THERAPY OF GARDENS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
It's no surprise that in these times of uncertainty in the world, more work, and less time it seems for personal and family pleasures, that a new trend of home garden design to provide stress relief has begun to emerge in Europe. In the Netherlands it has been termed "geo-sense" gardening, with the emphasis mainly on proper use of colors.
The trend of designing home gardens with specific, relaxing qualities in mind may be a new trend, but it has much deeper roots as seen in the ancient gardens of Egypt, Persia, and China. The wealthy merchants or nobility of these ancient civilizations went to great lengths and expense to bring nature into their own "urban" environments. Later, this could be seen in European parks, at palaces, and country estates in England.
In our own country some of the first, and many of the most famous, parks were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. His most famous work from the 1860's, and the one many parks have copied, is New York's Central Park. Its acres of rambling walks, open spaces, ponds, and natural vistas with much of the city and crossing roads hidden from view, still provide stress relief for locals and visitors. Olmsted's designs reflected his view that people need to keep connected with nature.
The famous American writer Henry Thoreau was another early American naturalist, who wrote about the positive effects of nature on humans in his book, "Walden." More recently, Harvard zoologist Edward Wilson has written at length on his belief that humans have a natural affinity with nature, a trait he believes is partly a genetic tendency. He has termed this "biophilia." Such ideas of Olmsted, Thoreau, and others can now be found in the field of environmental psychology, and ideas from this field are being incorporated into planning "urban forests" in Europe.
Horticulture Therapy is a relatively recent field of study that primarily focuses on the effects of the process of gardening on rehabilitation. Anyone that gardens knows that the process of gardening is therapeutic. This actually has been put to use in many hospitals, to help recovering patients. Many botanic gardens now have gardens and programs specifically designed for interaction by those with physical challenges. Even some prisons now have gardening programs.
One of the main mental health benefits that such gardening activities provide anyone, whether in one of these programs or in a home garden, is a sense of control. This could be as simple as taking a cutting, planting a seed, nurturing a seedling. Control of your home garden (a challenge in itself for some of us gardeners) can provide an antidote for problems of work and the world beyond our control.
Another important mental health benefit utilized in horticulture therapy is the ability of gardening to distract, more so than many other rehabilitation activities. Gardening is used to take people's minds off their problems and pain, and to help alleviate depression, whether in a hospital or home garden.
Although the focus of horticultural therapy is often on the process of gardening, one of the earliest scientific studies concerned the mere sight of gardens. Roger Ulrich, from Texas A&M University, found that hospital patients with views of nice landscapes recovered from surgery more quickly than those without such views.
One of the more recent studies, by Terry Hartig and colleagues in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that young adults exposed to stressful situations recovered much more quickly when they were put into a room with views of trees, and walked through a natural setting, than those that didn't. Viewing a garden or natural vista can reduce blood pressure, pulse rate, and increase brain activity related to mood alteration, often within minutes.
To keep up with studies on horticulture therapy, and to learn more about this field, a couple of good starting points are the American Horticultural Therapy Association (www.ahta.org) and the Horticultural Therapy Institute (www.htinstitute.org). This season when you are enjoying working in or simply enjoying your garden, keep in mind you are doing as many others have for centuries. Think of the scientific basis being investigated behind gardening benefits. Consider what gardening activities, or qualities about your garden, provide you the most therapy and stress relief.