Digging into the therapeutic value of gardens

by Heather Neale Furneaux

It was a long winter and an even longer spring for me this year. The never-ending to-do list of a life with three small kids and grad school felt insurmountable. When I added a second wrist surgery just before Christmas, I became just plain old overwhelmed. Depressed. Paralyzed.

Laundry piles taunted me from the basement. Dinner dishes mingled with soggy rags and play dough remnants in the sink like a failed science experiment. A trio of small people pestered me. “More milk, mama.” “Some yogurt, mama.” “A cheese string, mama. Please!” I could no longer differentiate between dairy products and dirty socks—and don’t even get me started on securing sippy cup lids with one hand.

But when I headed back to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in late January to have my arm cast removed, something happened. My five-year-old daughter, Malia, was skipping along the outdoor walkway with me on our way to orthopaedics when she slowed before a striking garden. Shocks of tall greenery framed a step-down stream that swelled into a pond before us. She paused.

A man in a Japanese-style robe stood nearby assessing the tableau, a thick shoot of bamboo held in one hand. He asked Malia if she wanted to “hear something neat,” to which she responded with a nod. Placing the bamboo to her ear, he invited her to listen to the sound of water running underground.

“It sounds like jingle bells,” she said, delighted. Stopping at the garden, talking with this calm-natured man, listening to my daughter’s impressions of a sound she’d never heard before—it all took me away from the worries of how my arm would look after eight weeks in a cast, how much mobility I’d have, whether I’d be able to hold my youngest baby normally or still have to balance her on one knee in order to breastfeed. This garden, and its designer, succeeded in bringing me back to the moment. This moment—where my daughter is filled with delight and I’m inhaling the scents and sounds of a small oasis surrounded by concrete. After a long few months of post-surgical difficulty, my own personal “winter of despair,” all I needed was a moment with water and greenery. Balance restored.

The Memorial Garden at the Royal Jubilee Hospital

As it turns out, horticultural therapy is not just a matter of glimpsing garden beds and feeling relaxed. It’s a conscious therapeutic model practiced by registered professionals to counter all kinds of barriers to healthy living: dementia, post-traumatic stress, substance-abuse-related issues, anxiety, and depression, to name a few. Whether your experience is structured into one-on-one sessions with a professional—“horticultural therapy”—or applied less formally in what’s referred to as “therapeutic horticulture,” time spent in gardens, forests, and nature in general, according to copious scientific studies, is better for the mind, body, and soul than any other individual health product on the market.

Ann Kent knows this well. One of only two master level horticultural therapists in Canada, Kent spent 22 years working as a school guidance counsellor before running outdoor education programs and finding her calling. According to Kent, horticultural therapists build a different kind of relationship with clients than traditional counsellors do. “Philosophically, we work differently,” she says. “I’m a facilitator, pace setter, coaching this person on to something they can keep going forward with.”

Kent’s worked in diverse programs—everything from school gardens to refugee communities—with highly positive results. In one case, the group of refugees with whom she worked had been hiding inside their homes out of fear. Her initial guiding question when starting the work was: “What do they need to feel unafraid to go outside?” They weren’t ready to garden in the open, so a large, secure fence was the first step.

Kent also works directly with clients like stroke victims looking to improve strength—people who may be improving physically through physiotherapy but are not getting better emotionally. She will bring in a collection of flowers and plants for her clients to touch and smell, see if anything brings up a memory or sense of enthusiasm, and build on that.

“The first objective might be: Okay, we are going to fill these 18 pots with dirt, with me assisting your weak arm,” says Kent. She explains this is a loose objective. The main goal is not to gauge just the person’s physical capability (i.e., can they do it) but their attitude towards the task—how they approach it and if they’re open to it. Tasks have to be measurable and definable in horticultural therapy. While clients are engaged in attempting the measurable tasks, the less quantifiable but equally important progress happens. The scent of herbs conjures a memory about gardening with their favourite aunt as a child surrounded by rosemary or baking lavender scones on the homestead in Saskatoon.

Photos: Kalina Hunter

Kent is not the only seasoned professional who knows just how powerful this work can be. A quick call to long-time horticultural therapist and Royal Roads University (RRU) grounds manager Paul Allison further confirms my suspicions. “We live on a plant-oriented planet,” he says. “We are quite literally risen from the soil.”

A co-founder of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, Allison has spent a lifetime working in gardens with clients from all walks of life. He has designed and built healing gardens in institutions like the Royal Jubilee Hospital and helped earthquake and tsunami survivors in Japan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (or “post-traumatic stress recovery,” as he calls it).

According to Allison, this kind of therapy is about reconnecting to nature and the self. In addition to benefits like faster healing, heightened cognitive development, and lowered levels of cortisol, he says time spent in nature is restorative, relaxing, and helps us “empty” our minds, leaving calm space for new ideas. It’s a proactive form of self-care aiding both one’s physical and mental state. “I like to call it ‘mind wellness’,” says Allison. In his current role at RRU, the garden guru works with business programs and communications professionals, orienting students around the plant world and emphasizing how “getting outside” is key for wellness and longevity.

“There are a lot of barriers to self-care even though we know it’s good for us,” says Allison, citing articles like Richard Coyne’s 2014 article, “Nature Versus Smartphones,” published by the journal Interactions. “We spend 90 percent of our time inside, five percent in some form of transportation, and then, if we are like most people, 28 percent of that remaining five percent where we are actually outside on an iPhone.”

Mic drop.

By contrast, the involuntary fascination you experience when stopping to soak in the gardens, trees, parks, and forests around you, uninterrupted by a relentless series of dinging social media notifications, helps make room for thoughts and ideas, improves self-esteem, and fosters creative energy and a sense of calm.

Heather’s daughter Malia

Allison designed the Memorial Garden at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital in honour of Dr. Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese statesman who died there in 1933. As he begins to tell me about it, I interrupt him. “Hey, I know that garden. My daughter Malia and I visited it when I went in to get my arm cast off.” I explain how depressed I felt that day, rundown by the effects of recuperating from surgery and thinking about how my arm would still be unusable for at least six weeks until rehab kicked in. I tell him how Malia distracted me by pulling me over to see the beautiful garden.

“Is your daughter about four or five with blond hair?” Allison asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“She’s the one who said the underground water sounded like jingle bells,” he says. I am floored. Here is this man I just met over the phone who somehow remembers meeting my daughter just briefly in passing months before, so in tune with that meeting he remembers her exact comment. I realize the therapeutic nature of gardens is the kind of thing that connects people through time and space and ripples into our lives in unexpected and surprising ways, just like the water in the fountain Allison built.

His garden prompted a pause in my tricky January hospital day, a 15-minute break where I could smile and breathe while Malia explored the plants and water. And now, here it was again, so many months later, popping up as a reminder that we are all deeply linked to one another and to the earth and its elements, and that we should stop to witness this—even and especially in times of stress.

Did you like this article? Please subscribe.