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?
Horticulture, 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 nature – Vis 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. )
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.
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