Healing Gardens

Horticultural therapy is the use of plants and gardening to help treat a variety of mental illnesses, traumatic brain injuries and memory impairments.

PITTSBORO — It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day workings of our THINGS: cell phones, computers, cars, homes, etc.

It’s not so easy to see the connection between people and plants, and yet that connection is all around us. Plants are represented in our food, clothes, homes, medicines and even the air we breathe. However, this story is about what many people consider a deeper connection.

“I think we are hard wired deep down in our DNA for an appreciation for being out in the natural world,” says Damon Waitt, Executive Director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. “There’s something about that color green and knowing that photosynthesis is happening all around you that makes you feel better; and to see things grow and to know you have a hand in it is good for the spirit and good for the soul.”

That connection forms the foundation of horticultural therapy, which uses plants and gardening to help treat a variety of mental and physical illnesses and improve health and wellness. 

“We see medication management therapy as a way to control symptoms, and medicines do a wonderful job of helping to reduce symptoms as well as getting patients clinically stable,” explains Thava Mahadevan, Director of Operations with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. “But we see horticulture therapy as a treatment that brings people back to life. Their mood and social functioning is improved. We see them smile more, we see people enjoying life, and that is hard to do with medication alone.”

The program is a joint effort between the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.

“A lot of people call it simply digging in the dirt, but I believe when I see dirt under my fingernails, I feel I am better person,” says Nancy Eastering, as she laughs and shows the dirt under her fingernails. Yes, the North Carolina Botanical Garden's Director of Education gets her hands dirty.

“That dirt helps you to feel accomplished and connected and to know that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, that you’re part of everything,” adds Eastering. “And without that I think you can feel lost.”

UNC’s horticultural therapy program is the longest running program in the southeast and one of the longest running in the nation. It builds on a long history of medical evidence that shows when social science, medical science and plant science is combined, people’s health is improved.

Sally Haskett, manager of horticultural therapy at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, believes the program works because she sees a symbiotic relationship, or interdependence, between people and plants.

“You’re working with another living system and to see that progress from a seed to a plant to harvest builds up a connection with the environment,” says Haskett. “I’ve seen people get very invested in what they do here.”

Haskett goes on to explain that when people first begin the program there is a reluctance to talk because of the stigma associated with mental illness. But after a few months, people begin talking about how the plants are doing, and that helps them open up to talk about other things.

“I can see there’s a big change,” says Haskett. “There’s a feeling of hope that comes from watching a plant grow.”

Physicians must recommend their patients for the program. An assessment team determines eligibility and a treatment regimen. Trained therapists work with the patients. A typical session involves a morning meeting before heading out to the garden where professional garden workers supervise the days’ activities alongside therapists and patients.

Medical insurance does not cover the program’s cost. For now, a variety of grants are paying for treatments while researchers study the therapy’s long-term effectiveness.

“We are seeing mood improvements from our clients in addition to seeing self-ratings from clients that they feel good about themselves,” adds Mahadevan, who says he is encouraged by the measurements.

“Those ratings indicate a reduced need for clients to have more frequent contacts with therapists,” Mahadevan adds.

The time patients spend in the program depends on the individual’s treatment plan and the progress they show.

“Sometimes it takes more than words to take a person to a changing place where they can find themselves and understand who they are and where they want to go,” says Easterling. “I think many times it takes plants and nature to open people up. We see that over and over again.”

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