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October 13, 2012

By Travis Slagle, Horticulture Therapy Director

In the past three weeks I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference for the American Horticultural Therapy Association, and co-present with Hilary Moses at the Wilderness Therapy Symposium sponsored by the Outdoor Behavioral Health Care Industry Council.  Both organizations are dedicated to developing research and professional development for outdoor therapy practitioners and advocate for the restorative benefits of nature-based therapies.  Wilderness therapy maybe more familiar to the general public, but there is far more research available showing the physiological and psychological benefits of horticultural therapy.  This is partly due to the fact that horticultural therapy is being utilized in more clinical settings, across a broader population, and with a larger variety of human service programs including veterans’ hospitals, hospice centers, correctional facilities, cancer treatment centers, and psychiatric hospitals.

For those interested in research, one study conducted in 2011 and published in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests that the simple act of gardening can dramatically reduce symptoms of chronic stress and anxiety.  Gardens are inherently restorative and community centered, and they provide a hands-on opportunity to explore the nature of growth and adaptation both internally and externally, as well as seeing the tangible results of hard work and responsibility.  Another article published in Youth Today, provides evidence that gardening programs in youth correctional Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy Programfacilities are correlated to drastic reductions in recidivism rates.  In some cases, recidivism rates among offenders who participated in horticultural therapy programs were reduced from the national average of 42% to below 10%.  Above all, what is most impressive is the versatility and impact a therapeutic garden can have as a model for higher standards of care and innovation within the outdoor therapy industry as a whole.   All of this is a sign of a growing trend in wilderness and outdoor therapy programs to promote treatment activities that are not only personally transformative and connected to nature, but are also relevant throughout the ups and downs of modern society.

Horticultural therapy may never match the chest pounding experience of braving a winter storm, building a primitive fire, or spreading out in a forest during a lightning drill in the backcountry.  However, there is growing evidence that suggests gardening can achieve the same outcomes without the risk.  Just as our distant ancestors gradually evolved from the nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering to the dawn of civilization through agriculture, each way of life builds on the wisdom of the past.  In many ways, the evolution of horticultural therapy and wilderness therapy share a similar story; providing a mirror that reflects the timeless effort of creating meaning by working with nature to learn about our own nature.

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