How a Garden Grows You: The Therapeutic and Meditative Effects of Gardening
Every neighborhood has at least one.
From one corner of the earth to another this person isn't hard to spot. They have been exposed to the calming, meditative, mood, and life-altering effects of gardening. There they are, bathing in the therapeutics offered up by the delightful sights, sounds, and odors found only in a garden.
Growing up there was an old man around the corner who was always in his garden. He had course white hair, rough, like dried sage, that poked out of his grey golfer's cap. He carried an orange metal stool that he sat on as he pruned, and plucked, and snipped at the flowers.
He walked with a bend in his back, never leaving that half-seated position, ready to plop back onto the stool and resume his work. The curvature of his spine was distinct, earned by decades of hard work and bending over the soil. Every once in a while I would see him working happily with his wife, but most of the time it was just him.
Seeing him out there day after day, month after month, year after year one thing became increasingly apparent. The old man didn't need to spend so much time in the garden, it was beautifully tended, a masterpiece. I knew for sure though, after recognizing the solitary bliss in his expression, he wanted to be there.
He chose to be there. Alone. It was his therapy. And after being to war, raising three kids, and being happily married to his wife for over 60 years, he understood the power of this treatment, this prescription, and that wise old man knew just where to get it.
Horticultural Therapy To Your Rescue
Some call it therapy, others meditation, and if you want to be formal, then we can call it Horticultural Therapy.
I call it being out there, and it just makes me feel good; it always has. It makes your body strong, and it makes your head even stronger.
But for everyone it isn't just a hobby, it’s not just something they do for fun or pleasure. Some people need to get away. They need to get out of their heads, run away from their thoughts, the mind can be a prison. I can only imagine what it is like to have Autism or to live with a mental illness, a physical disability, or being imprisoned, but I have worked with people who have experienced all of these things.
I have seen first hand the meditative, and traveling effects that gardening can have on people with disabilities, and mental illness. It can be intoxicating for them, or anyone for that matter. And though it may only be for thirty minutes, or sixty minutes, it can transport them to a place, mentally, that also feels like a lush, welcoming, fragrant garden. Momentarily forgetting the repetitive, confinement of mental or physical imprisonment. And once this soothing feeling has hitched a ride, it can travel with you for the rest of the day.
The raised garden beds were made of Cedar, with a fiery red hue. Some were knee-high, others rose to the waist. The waist-high boxes were wheelchair accessible. They had an additional ledge added so that participants could lean in, over the top of the box to peer inside or feel the flowers.
Meditating In The Learning Garden
Each week began with the same awkward interaction as the participants exited the long white conversion van. They always seemed so tense. Maybe just because it was so early, only 8 am. Or perhaps it was just what we all experience. The natural buildup of well, everything.
Emotions, stress, relationships, work, the things we all deal with day to day, along with their condition or circumstances. Regardless of what that thick, undesirable feeling in the air each week was, the result by the end of the session was always the same.
A cold, hard start, relations increasing in temperature, warming…. warming…..warming until finally like clockwork an intoxicating mood of laughter, and carefreeness filled the air of the entire garden. As joy bloomed in the faces of the participants, it became crystal clear that plants absolutely do grow happiness.
Each week we worked on arts and crafts with the participants. Each project was constructed with plants that we picked together out of our learning garden. We picked cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, all types of lettuces, and herbs. As much as they loved to look at the plants, touch them, smell them, nothing came close to when it came time to taste them.
When they tasted the vegetables and herbs picked, the joy on their faces was, overwhelming. It took over everything in their entire world at that moment. You could see that their mind was quiet, even if it was just for a moment. When they felt the Mint snap between their fingers as they tore it from its mother, their senses were lit on fire.
And when they lifted their fingers to their noses and smelled the sweet, yet bitter essence on their fingertips, they melted in place, cemented to the spot where they were standing. But, when they placed the mint leaf into their mouths, and the tiny, tiny little hairs on the leaf tickled their tongue, then, they closed their eyes went away.
You could see them leaving the mood they came with behind, trampled by the overwhelming volume of the sensory experience. Gone, away from the pain and into a peaceful place, led there, benevolently by the senses. A place that is always welcoming, and available on demand for all of our therapeutic needs.
This garden was a place that they could meditate uninterrupted by the cold, heartless, unapologetic mechanization of reality. As the learning garden was to them, our garden is always there for us, calling out to us for shared healing.
Horticultural Therapy Ascends To Universities And Healthcare Facilities
Horticultural therapy became what it is today because it helped those that were in pain. Veterans and the effect that gardening had on them solidified the power of Horticultural Therapy as an area for research, and subsequently as a powerful and effective treatment.
Soldiers needed meditation to ease their minds from war, and the calming meditation of gardening helped them to do that. Many wanted to forget their bodies new limitations, as much as they wanted to forget the memories of war.
Thanks to a few smart, caring and watchful eyes, the connection between gardening and increased wellbeing was made. The association was followed by more research, and the results were nothing but positive.
It turns out that gardening is literally good for you, more specifically, its good for your wellbeing. It took until the 20th century for us to prove these findings on paper. But, healing gardens, meditation gardens, sensory gardens, vegetable garden, and herb gardens have been known by ancient cultures to have positive effects for centuries.
Today plants are used in all types of healthcare settings like assisted living facilities, hospice, rehabilitation, and cancer treatment centers. Now we have large educational institutions that offer programs of study in Horticultural Therapy, including Colorado University and Oregon State University.
According to an abstract found on the National Center for Biotechnology website, “Patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly more positive physiologic responses evidenced by lower systolic blood pressure, and lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue than patients in the control room.”
Gardening For The Mind And Body
That’s incredible! Merely having plants around a patient can make them feel less pain and fatigue, and these benefits can be experienced by any one of us. Yes, meditation gardening can work wonders for someone who is living with PTSD for example, but that is only one treatment of which there are so many more.
Gardening works just as well with a trained Horticultural Therapist and their patients, as it does for parents who need to get away from the kids, or, even each other.
A garden is a sacred place that can teach how to better cope and interact with our world, and with each other. The roots of change lie just inches beneath the soil, and our relationship with them can change our lives and the way we experience them forever.
Whether we are looking for meditative time away from our fast-paced lives or seeking physical or emotional healing, it can be found just outside in the garden. When we allow the beauty, power, and magnificence of nature to arrest our senses, and we leave our weary minds at the gate, the garden becomes a place that will soothe our souls, raise our spirits, and strengthen our bodies for all of the time.
For more information about the power of Horticultural Therapy check out these great videos and links.
- American Horticultural Therapy Association
Gardening becomes healing with horticultural therapy, CNN, August 3rd, 2018