Horticulture and Health

I am thrilled to host our first guest post from Lesley Fleming, MA, HTR. Lesley is a registered horticultural therapist who has worked with elder, youth, veteran, rehab, and inmate populations through her private practice in Florida. She served as editor-in-chief of the AHTA News Magazine, a publication for the members of the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), and is a former AHTA board member. Lesley continues to be a prolific and passionate writer and public speaker on a variety of horticultural therapy and people-plant related topics. Here, in her eat|breathe|garden guest post, she addresses the benefits of nature and horticultural activities on human health and wellbeing. Enjoy!

____________________________________________________

By Lesley Fleming, MA, HTR
Cover photo: L. Fleming

How does horticulture impact human health?
HandholdingfernHorticulture, defined as the art and science of cultivating flowers, vegetables, ornamental plants, and fruit, can encompass a wide ranging variety of activities that can span all of the health domains: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and intellectual. Health practitioners from across disciplines shed light on the scope of impact horticultural elements can have on human health and well-being. Substantiated by a growing body of evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, society seems intrigued by connections between horticulture and health in our current technology-heavy lifestyle.

What are some of the connections between horticulture and health?

The healing power of natureVis Medicatrix Naturae concept attributed to Hippocrates, refers to healing powers of nature (including horticulture), as a guiding principle for human health and medicine. Ecotherapy, ecopsychology and nature-based therapies are emerging as viable treatment approaches. Rooted in what E.O. Wilson emphasized as the biophilic need for humans to connect to the natural world, these nature-based therapies are often mentioned as antidotes to society’s increasing reliance on technology, environmental decline, increasing mental health issues, and low levels of contact with nature. Environmental psychologist Stephan Kaplan’s 1995 research on the restorative benefits of nature have been embraced by many in the medical and therapeutic communities and are the basis of attention restoration therapies used for treating many patients, especially those dealing with cancer.

Physiological benefits from plants and gardening – Research continues to demonstrate the health benefits from growing, being near, and even breathing in fragrances from plants. Research conducted by Qing Li, Nippon Medical School, Tokyo has provided data that blood pressure, cortisol levels and NK (cancer fighting) activity can be improved through ‘forest breathing,’ where aromatic compounds called phytoncides release chemicals that when breathed in, can improve physical well-being. Research published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society suggests that walking a reflexology path, which stimulates the feet’s pressure points, can improve blood pressure when done on a regular basis. Smelling lavender and rosemary can address the body’s ability to fight disease and decrease levels of cortisol. Research continues to explain other physiological benefits from plants and gardening activities.

The emergence of gardens in healthcare settings – Gardens in hospitals have a long history dating back thousands of years. In the last 15 years, more and more healthcare facilities have integrated green spaces into their physical facilities. In part responding to the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Hospitals Organization’s 1999 report calling for opportunities for patients and visitors to connect with nature, as well as a response to client-based preferences for views of, and access to plants, both of these reflect Ulrich’s (1984) research conducted in a hospital setting where patients with views of nature had faster recovery time.

Social movements rooted in gardening activities – These include community and school gardens, World War II victory and allotment gardens, permaculture communities, community social agriculture (CSA), fair trade, poverty and social justice concerns, social groups–garden clubs, master gardeners, 4-H, Future Farmers of America clubs, and high school environmental clubs, to name a few. Often correlated to food security, social movements involving gardening activities have been able to sustain themselves because they address a basic human need—growing food—while providing social, educational, recreational, and political connectors.

Horticultural therapy and other treatment modalities – including recreation, physical, occupational, and eco- therapy have incorporated gardening and plant-based activities (assessment and treatment) into their disciplines. Though the historical roots of gardening for rehabilitation can be traced back to the 1800s, the popularity of therapeutic practices using horticultural activities has dramatically grown in the last decade and a half. Newer approaches like nature-based therapies (NBT), ecopyschology, and wilderness therapy have broadened how nature and horticulture are used to improve human well-being and target specific health deficits.

Veteran to farmer programming – Integrating vocational, therapeutic, educational, social enterprise, and rural community restructuring elements into innovative programs for those transitioning from military to civilian life, it is the connection between horticulture and health that has spurred the development of alternative approaches for addressing the mental, physical, social, and economic challenges faced by Post 9/11 soldiers. Likened to European care farms, this hybrid model of social, vocational, and health programming has as its core value, connecting human to nature. Few of those who have initiated veteran to farmer programs use terms like horticultural therapy or therapeutic outcomes to describe their programs or the changes observed in participating veterans, but this is another example of how horticulture (one aspect of nature) connects to human health. (The author’s research, titled “Veteran to Farmer Programs: An Emerging Nature-Based Programming Trend” was published in 2015 in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture 25 (1) pp.27-48. )

In summary
The positive health outcomes attributed to contact with nature, specifically horticulture, continue to be recognized and validated through empirical research in a wide array of health disciplines. Linking horticulture to health – be it through treatment, social engagement, improved nutrition, garden design, or other – speaks to the impact plant-based activity can have in all health domains. The sense of hope for cancer patients growing their own healthy food, reduced recidivism rates for incarcerated individuals who participate in horticultural therapy programs, greater parent involvement in their children’s school gardens, active aging populations who socialize at community gardens—all serve as examples. No longer relegated to the narrow category of fiber, food, or medicine, plants and their related plant-based health services broaden the scope of impact horticulture is having on human health and well-being.

References
Atsumi, T, and K Tonosaki (2007). Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva. Psychiatry Research 2007; 150:89–96.

Farmer Veteran Coalition (2014a). About Us. http://www.farmvetco.org/about-us

Fleming, L. (2015). Veteran to farmer programs: An emerging nature-based programming trend. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture 25(1) 27-48.

Grahn, P. et al. (2010). Using affordances as a health promoting tool in a therapeutic garden. In C. Ward Thompson, S. Bell & P. Aspinall (Eds.), Innovative research in landscape and health (pp.116-154). London: Taylor & Francis.

Hiroshi, H. (1998) “On Vis medicatrix naturae and Hippocratic Idea of Physis” Memoirs of School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Kanazawa University 22:45-54 http://sciencelinks.jp/j-east/article/199907/000019990799A0162403.php

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefit of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15(3), 169-182.

Li, F., Fisher, J. & Harmer, P. (2005). Improving physical function and blood pressure in older adults through cobblestone mat walking: A randomized trial. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 53(8), 1305-1312.

Ulrich, R. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 1984; 224:420–21.

Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

A Sampling of Spring Therapeutic Horticulture Programming

The first day of spring is right around the corner. It is also Horticultural Therapy Week next week – March 15-21, 2015. So in anticipation, I thought I would share a sampling of activities that my groups have been busy working on already, as well as a few other upcoming programs. (I have planned tutorials for future posts, but please feel free to message me if you have a question in the meantime.)

Kokedama
Create kokedama – moss wrapped plants – in a therapeutic horticulture activity.

Kokedama
This form of wrapping a plant’s root ball in moss is often referred to as the “poor man’s bonsai.” Instead of a fancy piece of pottery to contain the plant, wrap the root ball in sheet moss and secure with thread or wire. Kokedama translates to “moss ball.” Check out this how-to from Bloom Zine, and learn more about the origins and practice of creating bonsai at Bonsai Empire.

Amaryllis bulb plant - Therapeutic Horticulture activity
Plant amaryllis bulbs and watch them transform into beautiful flowers.

Planting Amaryllis Bulbs
The act of planting a dormant bulb, watering it, and watching the amaryllis’ large flower stalk form over the period of a few weeks can be quite powerful. No instant gratification here – ahh, the anticipation of “When, OH when, will they finally bloom?” Though bulbs are generally sold at garden centers for indoor forcing between November through early January, some online retailers may still have inventory left – on clearance (which is how I was able to afford buying these puppies for programs). Bulbs forced indoors in late winter are enjoyed in early spring. When planting the bulb, ask participants to think about their hopes and intentions for the new year. They can write it down – right on their pot even(!) – discuss it openly with the group, or have a quiet reflection on their own. Then as the flower emerges then blooms, it is a frequent reminder to stay focused on the positive intentions sent forth earlier in the year…despite the possible distractions that have occurred since the initial planting. No bulbs available now? Plant seeds like sunflowers, watch them sprout, and then transplant outdoors.

Soil blending - soil prep - Therapeutic Horticulture activity
Blend your own soil to help your plants start off on the right foot.

Soil Blending
OK, so mixing soil may not sound like an activity all on its own. But when carefully presented, it is an important one and can elicit wonderful responses from clients, including a recent exclamation from one of my elder clients, “Oh! We get to make mudpies?” As I say in all of my programs that incorporate soil and planting, the foundation of any successful garden is the soil. If you don’t start your framework for the garden with a solid foundation – with proper preparation – then the plants added there are at a disadvantage and may not flourish as a result.

One more thing – have you ever worked with a compressed disk of coir fibers? Coir fiber disks often come with seed starting kits or bulb kits. They act kinda like those tiny pellets that you got as a kid and didn’t know what they were. Then, when you added water, they transformed into dinosaurs or a Minnie Mouse washcloth before your eyes. Add a little bit of water to these coir fiber disks, and they grow into a tall cylinder of soil-like media, before caving in under its own weight. Even the most skeptical client is in awe of the process, trust me. I try to incorporate a sense of awe into each program and often ask groups – “Isn’t nature amazing?” More to come on the transformative nature of awe and the healing power of awe, supported by recently published research in the journal Emotion.

Floral masks - Pressed flower masks - Therapeutic Horticulture activity
Stimulate the creative juices with these festive masks made out of pressed flowers and feathers.

Floral Masks
Inspired by an awesome book and resource, A Calendar Year of Horticultural Therapy, by HT practitioner Janice Hoetker Doherty, I first did this activity with clients as a Mardi Gras related activity. I was really surprised by the response to this activity. The group loved looking at themselves, all masked up, in a mirror. They even held an impromptu parade through the building, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Pressed flowers were collected and pressed from the garden or purchased at my favorite website, Greetings of Grace (who, by the way, have an excellent customer service team and helped me out with my order in a pinch). Masks and beads purchased at Dollar Tree. Feathers purchased from the craft store. (I heart Hobby Lobby and their 40% off coupon that is bookmarked on my smartphone.)

Floral arrangements - Therapeutic Horticulture activity
Seasonal floral arranging is quite the popular activity in therapeutic horticulture programs.

Floral Arrangements
Making arrangements with fresh cutflowers continues to be a favorite activity for many. Recently I decided to cut a few things out of my home garden to share with a group, in addition to materials purchased at my floral wholesaler. We remarked about the variety of interesting plants still showy despite it being late winter. Showy in my garden – hardy gerbera daisies (Drakkensburg daisy), Lenten rose, pansies, Swiss chard, ornamental kale, Chinese fringeflower, curly rush, Dusty Miller, parsley, nandina, cyclamen, rosemary, daffodils, to name a few. Some clients used the garden cuttings, with the storebought flowers, in their arrangements. Beautiful!

Indoor garden prepwork - Therapeutic Horticulture activity
Plant hanging baskets and sow seeds indoors to get a headstart on your spring garden.

Garden Prepwork
Even though it may still be cold outdoors, we have many things we can do indoors to get ready for spring. We’ve been busy sowing seed in trays and transplanting spider plant babies into hanging baskets. Can’t wait to put these out in the garden!

Other upcoming therapeutic horticulture programs include Spring wreath-making, hypertufa planters for succulents, fairy gardens,  teacup planters for Mother’s Day, garden hat decorating with dried flowers for the Kentucky Derby, coleus propagation, and, of course, working outside in the garden.