By Laurie Daniels, CSU Extension – Denver Master Gardener since 2014
As gardeners, we all know the calming effect of preparing the soil for planting, the satisfaction of methodically placing and covering a row of tiny seeds, the patience of watering and weeding the garden bed and the joy of seeing the first green shoots emerge. We may not think of it as therapy, but throughout history, the therapeutic benefits of garden environments have been widely recognized.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association’s (AHTA) website, Dr. Benjamin Rush, known as the “Father of American Psychiatry,” was one of the first to document the positive impact that working in a garden had on people with mental illness. After the World Wars, using gardens in the rehabilitation of hospitalized veterans gained credibility and expanded the use of gardening into occupational/physical therapy and beyond.
Today, AHTA has a defined program for certification of horticultural therapists that includes coursework in plant science, human science and horticultural therapy and a significant internship requirement. The Association has defined a therapy garden as, “A therapeutic garden is a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature.”
The Denver Botanic Gardens has a Manager of Therapeutic Horticulture, Angie Andrade, and a beautiful Sensory Garden that uses “specialized gardening techniques and structures to minimize barriers and maximize people’s abilities” to enjoy and interact with plants. Among other horticultural therapy programs offered by the Gardens is one at Chatfield Farms to support the therapeutic needs of post-9/11 military veterans.
In a meeting with Denver Master Gardeners who work at the Denver Children’s Home (more on that below), Angie Andrade helped us understand how horticultural therapy works. As she related, a garden always needs care so there is always something you can find to do. The repetitive nature of garden tasks like weeding, raking and planting seeds brings calm and helps rewire the brain. Being outside in the garden helps people learn to nurture plants and, by extension, learn empathy and responsibility. The garden is a structured, safe space where we are connected to other living things, so it opens us up to the natural world but in a supportive environment.
Horticultural Therapy in Action
As mentioned above, the Denver Master Gardeners have a volunteer program based in horticultural therapy with the Denver Children’s Home (DCH). DCH is the oldest non-profit organization in Colorado, originally started as an orphanage in 1876. It was renamed the Denver Children’s Home in 1962 and now operates programs including residential, day treatment, in-home therapy and Discovery home, a group home. DCH focuses on treating children and families who have suffered severe trauma, abuse, or neglect, with serious mental health issues.
In 2013, a former parking lot on the grounds of DCH was converted to an 870 square foot raised bed vegetable garden and a perennial healing garden under the leadership of Rebecca Hea (DCH Executive Director) and Carol Earle (Denver Master Gardener). With this addition, horticultural therapy joined art and music therapy, physical exercise and other therapeutic activities that help to build a lifetime of coping skills for the children.
From April through September, small groups of children spend one hour a week in the gardens, working with Denver Master Gardener volunteers. In 2021, with direction from the volunteers, the kids planted donated seeds and plants, weeded and watered, mulched, thinned rows of carrots and beets, and enjoyed harvesting over 300 pounds of produce that could be eaten as snacks or cooked in DCH kitchens.
The children grew a wide variety of plants, from beans and cauliflower to tomatoes and watermelon. The garden also boasts strawberries (a popular spring treat), raspberry and blackberry bushes and many beautiful perennial and annual flowers. In fact, making small bouquets for their rooms was one of the favorite activities of the teen-age boys who worked in the garden with me.
A centerpiece of the DCH vegetable garden is a large circular bed that hosts a “Three Sisters” garden based on a companion planting technique developed by Indigenous farmers in North America. The legend speaks of three sisters who are different yet love and thrive when they are together. In a garden, it refers to a mixed cropping technique that has corn, beans and squash planted together to support each other’s growth. The corn provides a “pole” for the beans to climb, the beans are a nitrogen-fixing plant that supports the corn’s growth and the squash creeps along the ground, shaded by the corn and beans and keeping weeds from affecting the other plants. The garden produced a bounty of produce for the children while helping them learn about the power of companion planting in the garden.
During my volunteer season in the garden, I saw horticultural therapy in action with the boys eagerly monitoring the growth of fruits and vegetables each week, taking responsibility for watering beds, learning how to tell if different vegetables were ready to harvest, carefully staking overgrown tomatoes, pruning late growth and helping put the garden to bed.
Over the summer, they shared excited sightings of giant worms while weeding and happily made “beetlejuice” by handpicking Japanese Beetles off grapevine and into cups of soapy water. Their joy at being in the garden was evident and the children seemed to grow throughout the season along with their plants.
The Denver Children’s Home garden is an outstanding example of horticultural therapy at work and a rewarding experience for Denver Master Gardener volunteers.