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Horticultural Therapy with Nancy Carneiro

The mental health benefits of Horticultural Therapy
Photos courtesy of Nancy Carneiro

Nancy Carneiro is a horticultural therapist. She was first introduced to horticultural therapy in 1999 when she managed a sensory garden and hobby farm for a nonprofit organization called RISE in New York. She now works for the Department of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation for the City of Toronto as a horticulturist. She has been working in various parks and greenhouses in Toronto as a gardener and grower for the past 8 years. Nancy is also the promotional coordinator for the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA). In this interview we had the chance to learn what horticultural therapy is, what it looks like in practice and the benefits of this type of therapy.

What is Horticultural Therapy? 

If someone were to ask me personally my thoughts of horticultural therapy, I would say it is the practice of connecting nature with self-care into a balanced, healthy, and emotionally positive environment. We practice patience and learn to love and care in the natural world. It gives us pride, accomplishment, and teaches reward with persistence. There is a multitude of healthy benefits both physically and mentally when exposing ourselves to outdoor spaces and what horticulture has to offer. 

How did horticultural therapy come about and how has it evolved over time?

Horticulture has been used as a therapeutic modality since ancient times. Ancient Egyptian physicians prescribed walks around the garden for patients. In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush ‘Father of American Psychiatry’ reported that garden settings held “curative effects for people with mental illness”. Studies have reported the benefits of horticultural therapy, HT in reduction of pain, lessening of stress, and lowering of medications and antipsychotics. Currently, I believe there is a continuous increase in HT practices and surroundings that are influencing day to day life; for example architecture for healthier mental stimulation and collaborations with environmental awareness. 

Why is horticultural therapy important in this day and age? 

The overuse of technology like cell phones has become a modern health concern due to its effects on mental health and potential to increase stress. The term ‘unplugging’ has become popular, often called “digitally detoxing” from personal devices. This promotes freedom from a commercial society and a re-focus on current surroundings. Horticultural therapy can easily be represented in the same light as ‘unplugging’ as we prefer to ‘detach’ and reconnect with our natural surroundings for self wellness. The CHTA term “well with nature” really coins what HT truly represents, we must remember that we are also apart of the natural world. Our bodies are truly just as organic as a tree, flower, or even a bee. The importance of encouraging bonding time with the earth and all of it’s healing powers through the natural gifts of minerals, herbs, vegetables, and all landscapes in between it truly what therapeutic nature programs truly represent. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has become a part of HT health awareness also, in which most of us are affected to some degree at various periods of the year.&

Why should youth get involved in gardening and horticulture?

Through gardening and other horticultural practices we discover patience and caring.  It helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization. Physically it aids in muscle strengthening, improves coordination, balance, and endurance. In educational settings we learn to work independently, with groups, problem solve, and bridge conversation between communities. It teaches us the importance of nature and it’s bounty, through HT we learn the process of maintaining a healthy connection with the earth.

What are the benefits of horticultural therapy for your mental health?

I have two favorite quotes that I utilize when describing how horticultural therapy affects wellness mentally.

The first quote comes from a book “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” written by Mirabel Osler, an English writer and garden designer:"There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling". 

Another quote comes from Ted Andrews who writes about signs, omens, and messages in nature: "The changes of the season are temporal doorways that heighten our sensitivity to signs, omens and messages. They awaken our intuition, making signs and messages much clearer, they stimulate epiphanies".

I have been approached by the public countless of times while working in the gardens in Toronto’s parks, consistently individuals share their experiences of gardening and how relaxing and mood enhancing it is. Gardening methods and other nature-based activities can be harnessed as helpful teaching tools for mood and mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, anger, panic, jealousy, guilt, and shame. 

What should people consider when looking for a horticultural therapist?

Registered horticultural therapists with the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA) are professionals with specific education, training, community involvement, and credentials in the use of horticulture for therapeutic practices both physically but primarily mentally. We have high standards for developing and leading hands-on nature based programs. Our goal is to encourage individuals to gain pleasure from land use through many forms of outdoor activities utilizing horticultural trades. Registered HT therapist within the CHTA follows a code of ethics which includes the highest possible level of professional skill gained through education and experience in horticulture therapy by demonstrating integrity, reliability, sound clinical judgment and professional decorum.

Horticultural Therapist should practice with environmental awareness and sensitivity to native species. We are involved in our local communities and respect our surroundings giving way to nature first and foremost. Clients receive zero judgement and attention is focused towards a positive outlook of the natural world.