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Established 2004

Horticultural Therapy/ Organic Gardening


Horticultural Therapy combines the art and science of growing flowers, vegetables, fruits and trees with the most current theories in human behavior, neuroscience and counseling psychology. Horticultural therapy utilizes gardening activities in conjunction with traditional counseling techniques to meet specific therapeutic treatment goals. Horticultural therapy is a client-centered treatment model that seeks to enhance social, cognitive and physiological functioning with the primary goal of improving health and inspiring motivation for change. By placing students in caregiving roles, we are able to create an experiential environment that is both growth-focused and life-affirming. The gardens at Pacific Quest offer a living example of what growth looks like, creating a culture where words and actions are matched, leaving students with empowering life skills that are transferable beyond the garden.


The therapeutic response to nature is a result of thousands of years of human evolution. Prior to the institutionalization of mental health services, issues such as depression, anxiety and trauma were ameliorated through simple tasks of daily living.

Horticultural Therapy has been documented in some of the earliest records of human history dating back to when Egyptian pharaohs were prescribed daily walks in a garden as treatment for mood instability.

Greek philosophers were known for teaching life lessons in lush productive gardens, and animistic cultures mythologized the biological processes of plants and trees to create meaning and identity within their society.

However, it wasn’t until the advent of the first private psychiatric institutions in the early 1800’s that Horticultural Therapy became a clinical treatment for mental illness. While the calming effects of caring for plants and trees may be timeless and universally appealing, Horticultural Therapy continues to be an emerging field that has proven to be compatible with a variety of professional counseling and rehabilitative practices.

Quick Facts:

  • Research has found that stimulating the senses through patterned repetitive activities in nature is what has shaped the neurological foundation of the human psyche.
  • Anthropologists have confirmed that for generations, families and communities throughout human history have relied on nature not only for the basic need for food and resources, but also for beauty, curiosity and the cultural necessity of ritual and spiritual exploration.
  • Research in neuropsychology and behavioral epigenetics suggests the biological healing response in the autonomic nervous system has been shaped by relational experiences and direct contact with the natural environment.


Sensory integration and somatic experiencing are some of the many interventions that are woven into the safety and predictability of working in PQ’s therapeutic garden. Our clinicians and program guides are trained in a neurodevelopmental approach that stimulates the human capacity to self-regulate and problem solve, beginning with a physiological attunement with the sensory experiences in the body and the immediate environment. At Pacific Quest, Horticultural Therapy is not only an intervention, it also an overarching philosophy, addressing the state of hyperarousal and dysregulation within the nervous system while nurturing a reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

Practical Skills

History teaches us how ancient agriculturalists understood nature and themselves in a very different way than hunters and gatherers. Similarly, our program teaches the skills like how to work with nature vs. battling it, and how to cultivate the earth vs. trampling it. Throughout this process the young people we work with discover the wisdom and simplicity of planting seeds and caring for trees that bear fruit for generations. The principles Pacific Quest is founded upon are very different than other traditional wilderness therapy programs. Rather than climbing mountains or mastering skills in a remote wilderness, Pacific Quest participants generate insight and practical skills by growing food for a community and creating beauty within the natural environment.

A Process of Growth

At Pacific Quest, the stages of change within the individual and process of growth in the garden are interconnected. We believe the art of gardening has much to teach us about the art of living. The garden is one of many areas in the program where students learn to practice the skills to live a more independent and productive life. Whether by organizing a nursery, prioritizing crop rotations, planning a planting schedule, designing garden beds, charting compost temperatures or experimenting with new and creative ways of increasing efficiency and sustainability, young people at PQ test new skills and insights in a uniquely experiential way on a daily basis. As students develop the courage and skills to care for a garden, they experience greater confidence in the ability to internalize care for themselves, which helps our students apply new skills and insights to aspects of their lives that reach far beyond a therapeutic garden in Hawaii.

“Aloha Aina”

Considering the importance of place-based learning in experiential education, the values that sustain the Hawaiian culture and stories of this land provide an important anchor for the PQ experience. “Aloha Aina,” (to love the land) is an essential way of life in Hawaii. For students at Pacific Quest, learning to love the land and learning to love one’s self often go hand-in-hand. The expression “Aloha Aina” implies that love for life and love for the land are one and the same. While working in the garden and learning about ancient Hawaiian agriculture, students learn firsthand that love takes consistent work and requires “kuleana” (responsibility). This is one of the most basic mechanisms of change within the therapeutic gardens at Pacific Quest. Over time, our students learn to no longer wait to be told how and when to exercise responsibility, instead they practice ways to seek responsibility for themselves as an expression of self-worth and gratitude.

A Feeling of Purpose

The horticultural experience at Pacific Quest is based on the premise that people naturally want to do work that evokes a feeling of purpose, and relates to the larger scope of their lives. Through the activities in the garden, young people are immersed in an environment that challenges the need for immediate gratification and entitled attitudes. Unlike any other outdoor therapeutic program, students at Pacific Quest have an opportunity to learn about reciprocity by working together to cultivate the food they eat, and testing practical skills in a garden that are transferable in a modern society.


Growing and harvesting food that sustains a community provides the most basic lesson in sustainability, which is to give before taking. Students at Pacific Quest interact in a community that internalizes the concepts of sustainability by applying them to the process of emotional and psychosocial development. This is the cornerstone of our Sustainable Growth TM treatment model, offering young people the skills and unconditional support to express a profound sense of care that not only builds confidence, but also supports a healthier and more purposeful way of life.