Gardens for Humanity: Gardening is a step in horticultural therapy

(Courtesy Richard Sidy)

(Courtesy Richard Sidy)

When we give a bouquet of flowers to people who are in their sick bed, suffering emotionally, or in grief, we are practicing the most basic form of horticultural therapy. We also give flowers for festivals of celebration, or as gestures of love, gratitude, and remembrance. Mother’s Day and spring are examples of celebrations of the gifts of life and rebirth.

Just walking in a garden can be a calming activity bringing peace and inspiration, connecting us to the force of life. Throughout ages and in all cultures, the instinctive recognition of the healing power of plants in human-made environments has always found a special place. Public parks, home, and institutional gardens are all expressions of this value.

The first step in horticultural therapy is simply being in contact with living plants and experiencing their gifts of beauty in geometry, color, texture, fragrance, and, indeed, with the pleasures of all our senses. Plants play a symbolic and practical role in the survival and well being of our physical, emotional, and spiritual existence.

This spring, after a wetter than usual winter, wildflowers are bursting everywhere, even in usually arid deserts. If one walks in nature in the spring, one feels energized and uplifted as all the senses feast on the palpable energies of life and beauty.

As gardeners we participate in this renewal and nurturing of life in plants and in ourselves, whether we are cultivating ornamental plants or food. In reality, most food-producing plants are ornamental. Walking in our garden, the blossoms of fruit trees and vegetables add another dimension of beauty that feeds our spirit. They attract birds, pollinators, and other living creatures into our living space that increase our sense of relationship with nature.

Gardening is the second step of horticultural therapy, as we infuse ourselves with the energy of earth and plants, and actively touch the life in us and in them that we share. This has a beneficial effect on our sense of hope and well-being. This is a powerful antidote for feelings of depression.

The two steps described here: contact with plants, and actively growing plants, are informal, do-it-yourself “horticultural therapy.” However, such therapy is a growing practice recommended and prescribed amongst professional therapists, defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association as “the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals.”

Gardens for Humanity, as do all gardeners, engage in the do-it-yourself form of this. The Humanity in our name is the recognition by our founder that gardens and gardening really do touch our sense of humanity. Over the years we have participated in and seen the healing effects of gardens in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and communities in general.

We have seen that “misbehaving” children, when sent to a school garden rather than for punishment, calm down, are happy, and constructive. Who knows the hidden sources and wounds causing a child to “misbehave”? Children who plant seeds and watch them grow experience a sense of joy and accomplishment. One teacher told us, “I wish you could have seen the children last week when they brought in greens for me to taste, and try to identify what that they had grown.”

The other day I visited the healing garden we helped create at Sedona Winds Assisted Living center. The garden has become a beautiful park where residents can sit, or do some jobs in the garden caring for plants. It was so beautiful to see the happiness, animation, and camaraderie of the residents as we planted a variety of vegetables in planters we designed and built, accessible by wheelchair or walker.

Gardens for Humanity is so grateful for the opportunity to work with an active gardening community. As spring energizes Nature, the awakening of life signals renewal and brings us hope. Gardens provide a joyful way for us to live a happier, healthier, more connected life. Visit our website to learn more about our gardening community and resources:

Richard Sidy is president of Gardens for Humanity, a founding member of the Sustainability Alliance and a member of the Verde Valley Food Policy Council. To reach him, email president@