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Horticultural Therapy: The Healing Power of Growing Things

horticultural therapy the healing power of growing

“Gardening is fundamentally an act of enormous hope because everything you do in the garden is for the future.” Barbara Frum, 1937—1992, Canadian Broadcast Journalist

As a child growing up on the farm, I always had work to do. When my “townie” friends were watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, I was… well… also watching Gilligan’s Island. But AFTER THAT I would be working. Farm chores like feeding the pigs were part of my daily routine. And in the summer months we spent time weeding and harvesting and preparing the fruits and vegetables for freezing or canning. These foods would, for the most part, sustain us for the winter until the next summer when it was harvest-time again.

At the time, I can’t say I really appreciated it, but what a gift it has been as an adult. Without knowing it – and admittedly somewhat reluctantly – I developed a relationship with plants that is largely missing in urban North America today. Here, food is served in a restaurant or heated in a microwave. And there is often only a vague understanding that our food is grown “out there in the country somewhere”. For many other people in the world, knowledge about how plants grow is essential for survival. But, I would argue, without that knowledge people here are missing out on a basic connection that is not only essential for sustainability, but is fundamental to our health.

People need plants – for food, for clothing, for shelter, and for medicine. It makes sense that spending time experiencing how they grow is beneficial to our psychological and physical well-being. In fact, experience is showing just that. Horticulture therapy – the practice of using plants and gardening activities to facilitate therapy and rehabilitation – is being used successfully in hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities, correctional centres and rehabilitation centres all over North America. When people work with plants they feel better. The magic and wonder of helping a seed become a plant can be a curative experience. Depressed patients start to see hope for the future. Anxious patients are given a tangible focus. People with schizophrenia can become more grounded in reality. People with drug addictions feel a more positive sense of self-worth and get closer to stopping the cycle of dependency. And elderly patients can rekindle their will to live and provide hope for the future.

Homewood Health Centre, a psychiatric hospital in Guelph, has the largest and longest running horticultural therapy program in Canada. There, clients are able to learn the skills required to nurture plants and experience their therapeutic value. Homewood is racking up both anecdotal and empirical evidence that horticulture therapy is an effective therapeutic tool in modern-day healthcare programming.

Horticultural therapy can, of course, be healing on an informal basis as well. Almost everyone can reap the benefits from gardening. Even residents without a home garden plot can get dirt under your fingernails by balcony-gardening or getting a community garden plot or even taking a Saturday afternoon in the summer to pick your own fruit.

My own “horticultural therapy” occurs every summer when I maintain and nurture a medicinal herb garden. On our community property, I’ve been growing herbs like lemon verbena, mint and goji berries that I dry for teas to be used in the clinic. It’s a weekend hobby that is providing a local source of medicine for our patients at Healing Path. All the while, I am continuing my relationship with plants in my professional life that I developed as a child. Only now, I actually enjoy it.

Many herbalists believe that people respond best to the medicinal herbs that are grown in their own community. We have a fundamental connection to our local geography; therefore, the plants that we need should be grown locally. My garden is that source. I harvest each plant knowing that its healing properties will one day help one of my patients along their healing journey – a most gratifying and meaningful experience. Barbara Frum’s quote that gardening is “an act of enormous hope” was never more applicable.

I love helping my herbs grow – planting, mulching, weeding, harvesting, drying – to my surprise, it no longer seems like work. But (also surprisingly) when I watch Gilligan’s Island now, I find most of the jokes dull and the plotlines inane. An ironic twist, and potentially a sign that I’m… er… getting older.

Reading List

Horticulture As Therapy: A Practical Guide To Using Horticulture as a Therapeutic Tool. By Mitchell L. Hewson, HTM., Homewood Health Centre. 2000

Websites: (Canadian horticultural therapy association) (American Horticultural Therapy Association)


– The Holistic Garden

By Karen York, Prentice Hall/Penguin Books (2001)

– Green Nature/Human Nature: the meaning of plants in our lives

By Charles Lewis

– Louv, Richard. (2006) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Paperback edition). Algonquin Books

* For more information about the 100-mile Diet,

Getting dirt under your fingernails can provide not only that connection to plants we need for mental health, but, as well, growing your own food can reduce the environmental costs associated with food production. It’s also healthier for us to eat locally. I believe the same could be said for herbal medicine. This is the very reason I started my own medicinal herb garden. It will be a source of moderate exercise and fresh air. And forming a relationship to the plants that become our food also encourages a return to a whole foods based diet – the most important challenge to many people achieving optimal health.

Michael Torreiter

Michael Torreiter

Dr. Michael Torreiter is a Naturopathic Doctor at CARESPACE. He obtained his Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine designation at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto in 2005, worked at Healing Path for 13 years, and moved to CARESPACE in 2019. About half of Dr. Michael’s practice is focused on Precision Nutrition — a comprehensive weight management and lifestyle program that helps people lose weight, gain weight or just improve their diet. In addition, he treats a variety of conditions including digestive concerns, stress and anxiety, hormonal imbalance and men’s health. As well as being certified in Precision Nutrition, Dr. Michael has completed a Mind/Body Medicine Certification from Harvard Medical School and a certificate in Applied Mindfulness Meditation at the University of Toronto. He offers nutrition talks at the Running Room on a regular basis.