Pain and growth

Local therapists exploring the value of gardening

Courtesy of Growing Gardens

So long as you have those cushy gardener knee pads from Home Depot and a sufficiently brimmed hat, working the fields (or even just pulling the weeds in your yard) is a remedial activity that does most people the favor of letting them relax, zone out and reconnect with nature.

But for those living with special physical or mental needs, therapists are discovering it can serve an even greater purpose.

Horticultural therapy picks up where medicinal treatments leave off. By way of gardening work and instruction, horticultural therapy serves to assist the elderly and people with disabilities through an expanded range of activities — both physical and social. And though horticultural therapy, like many other treatment paths, helps relieve pain and improve overall quality of life for patients, it stands apart by also offering a sense of purpose and community belonging.

“I think it’s one of those out-of-sight services; people don’t really know that it’s happening, but it’s important that it be available,” says Annie Sweeney, program director at Growing Gardens in Boulder.

Growing Gardens is one of only a handful of sites around Colorado where horticultural therapy programs take place. After partnering with the City of Boulder in 1998 to help manage the Hawthorn Community Gardens, the folks at Growing Gardens recognized there was a need for more.

“We wanted to increase the skills and resources people had to grow their own food,” explains Growing Gardens’ Development Director Alyson Duffy. “And then we started developing programs too; it all kind of sprouted from that.”

One of the programs that came from their expanded efforts is the horticultural therapy program. Relative pioneers of the practice in the Boulder area, Growing Gardens came to build their horticultural therapy garden with the help of the Colorado State University Extension office, after being prompted by the Center for People with Disabilities.

Walking around the Growing Gardens site, you immediately notice plant beds that are raised to assorted heights and broad paths that border and run through the gardens. Sweeney explains Connect that special with us design elements like these improve garden interaction for users with varying mobilities — such as someone with arthritis who can’t comfortably kneel down to the ground. Their new orchard behind the greenhouse will even have heirloom fruit trees where cherries, plums and apples will hang lower to accommodate for children and those in wheelchairs picking the fruit.

As the gardens become more lush throughout the summer months, the area will be filled with a sensory-oriented plant selection, characteristic of horticultural therapy gardens. Varieties used vary, but allow for the garden to be focused on bright color, texture and fragrance.

But this isn’t some modern age holistic therapy thing; in the U.S., documented ideas about horticultural therapy date back to the American Revolution. Considered the father of American Psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first to record his theory about the healing effects he noticed in his patients after spending time working outside. In 1768 — before we were even a country — Rush maintained that digging in soil had a curative effect for the mentally ill. Since then, what became known as horticultural therapy has been recognized as a therapeutic treatment for not only the mind, but also the body.

The benefits of horticultural therapy are far-reaching. Physically, it can help with basic motor skills, improving muscle coordination and providing a gentle enough movement to help relieve joints plagued by arthritis. But the emotional and intellectual benefits are just as numerous.

“There’s a real sense of excitement and passion from being outside for the those who work in the gardens,” says Sweeney. Duffy adds that “people with disabilities and seniors tend to be more isolated, and so the social interaction that they get here can be very healing.”

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, working regularly with a group and sharing the fruit of everyone’s labor (literally) is an important form of social growth. This is especially true for people who might easily feel on the fringe of society due to age, or mental or physical challenges — like those from the retirement community of Bella Vista, or the Temple Grandin School for Asperger’s students; groups who regularly participate in the program at Growing Gardens. Seeing themselves succeed in the garden improves participants’ sense of worth and confidence, and — particularly important for the elderly or emotionally troubled — it’s an activity that generates interest, even excitement for the future.

On top of all of this, for those who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, the purposeful work that horticultural therapy offers can help conjure up good feelings from the past that they’ve lost.

Participants at Growing Gardens are exposed to an active program. Beyond planting, they tend to plots, harvest, and create art from the plants grown here. However, like many horticultural therapy gardens, the site in Boulder also lends itself to groups who want to be more passive.

“It just depends on the group and their abilities. Some enjoy just sitting and enjoying the beauty of the garden,” Duffy explains.

Horticultural therapy programs also often include plant-centric activities that supplement the learning and growth started in the gardens. At Growing Gardens, people can expect to engage in cooking classes that provide an increased knowledge of food preparation using some of what is grown on site. There’s also bird identification and garden-based crafts, such as making artificial flowers or turning seeds and dried flowers into jewelry.

Despite all of its success, horticultural therapy still isn’t as widely known as it probably should be.

“Services for the elderly and people with different needs is declining,” regrets Sweeney. “There isn’t that same community outreach around them as there is for other populations.”

However, an increase in schools that offer accreditation in horticultural therapy is on the rise in the U.S., which bodes well for the continued spread of this therapy to people who need it. Locally, the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver offers a certification program, and CSU in Fort Collins allows students to concentrate in horticultural therapy as part of a larger horticulture degree.

As Sweeney puts it though, “word of mouth is most crucial” for making people aware that this is a resource that exists and matters.

Growing Gardens is located at 1630 Hawthorn Ave., Boulder. You can learn more about their Horticultural Therapy program at