Plant lovers know the personal benefits gained from working in the garden. Nurturing plants and playing in the dirt seems to energize the spirit, stimulate creativity and dissolve life’s inevitable speed bumps. But not only does it seem to, it really does. In fact, even a walk in nature has measurable advantageous effects on our brain.
These positive benefits are the foundation for the science-based field of horticulture therapy, which uses specially designed gardens or plant activities in targeted treatment programs within rehabilitative, vocational, medical or communities. Individuals with physical limitations, post traumatic stress syndrome, cognitive and memory impairment or vocational challenges are among the populations who benefit from professional horticultural therapy.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, “a therapeutic garden is a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature.” Therapeutic gardens are designed to be safe and comfortable, invite exploration, build confidence, stimulate senses, improve dexterity and increase physical ability.
The Anchor Center in Denver, which provides early intervention and education to blind and visually impaired children age 0-6, has offered horticulture therapy for over ten years. Erin Lovely, Horticultural Therapy Coordinator and Denver Master Gardener (DMG) says that on most days, children can be found interacting with the child-scaled garden which is planned to stimulate senses, build fine and motor skills and increase sensory awareness. The sweetness of the space, which was designed with the help of DMG Angela Vanderlan, belies the rich learning opportunities within the garden.
Some of the purposeful, yet playful, activities include:
- navigating changing surfaces and hardscape while using a walking stick;
- identifying flower colors, which are strategically placed to highlight contrasting textures and colors, especially yellow, purple and red, which are easiest for the visually impaired to see;
- sowing seeds to increase fine motor skills which aide in learning braille later in life;
- petting a fuzzy leafed plant, touching a prickly pine needle and taking in the glorious scent of basil;
- filling a watering can and carrying it to its destination while navigating pebbles, mulch and concrete paths;
- harvesting and eating produce from the “Pizza Garden”;
- splashing in the water and crawling around large rocks.
Denver County Master Gardeners have been associated with the Anchor Center for many years. In addition to Erin and Angela’s work at the Anchor Center, each spring and summer, groups of Denver Master Gardeners contribute time to the Anchor Center’s garden by teaching and guiding gardening activities to groups of community volunteers. Past efforts have included planting trees, expanding garden beds and supporting the center’s compost program. From experience, I can attest to this being an inspirational way to share gardening knowledge with others.
If you are interested in learning more about the field of horticulture therapy and other programs in Colorado, here are some resources:
Colorado State University and the Horticultural Therapy Institute’s concentration in horticultural therapy.
Mental Health Center of Denver’s Horticulture Therapy program’s excellent video.
Denver Botanic Garden’s newly expanded Sensory Garden and therapy programs.
Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener
Photos used with permission of Craig Hospital (photo 1) and the Anchor Center.