by Courtney Llewellyn

Some people get it and some people don’t. If you are a grower or work in the horticulture industry, it’s more than likely you understand the power that plants can have. Not only can they serve functions (growing fruits and vegetables and making pollen available to pollinators), they can entirely change your mood for the better. That’s the concept behind horticulture therapy.

Hannah Brookfield is the owner and horticulture therapy program manager of BotaniGal and works with Emerge Greenhouse. Based in Reistertown, MD, Brookfield has been spreading the gospel of the power of plants for a long time.

“My first job was at a garden center in high school. I fell in love with plants and how they made me feel,” she said. “You can manipulate a person’s environment with plants to make them happy the same way you can manipulate a plant’s environment to make it happy.”

Hannah Brookfield – the BotaniGal – strongly believes in the power of horticultural therapy. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

Brookfield explained that the term “horticulture therapy” was first used in the 1940s, and in the U.S. the first horticulture therapy course took place in 1952. The American Horticulture Therapy Association was founded in 1973, and by 1981, eight universities in America had either a bachelor’s or master’s degree program in horticulture therapy. Simply defined, horticulture therapy is the use of plants and plant-related activities to improve on a goal and to improve a person’s overall health and well-being.

She pointed out that you don’t have to be a registered horticulture therapist to practice horticulture therapy, however. The practice is based on biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Doing so can lower stress and high blood pressure and even improve diabetes. Brookfield noted there are many studies that have shown how effective the therapy can be.

Horticulture therapy can be either passive (simply walking through a greenhouse or a forest) or active (interacting with plants and using your senses to observe them, by digging your hands in some soil, smelling flowers or tasting the food they produce). With BotaniGal, Brookfield helps those interested in offering horticulture therapy with one of three programs: vocational, therapy or social/wellness.

A vocational program teaches skills, responsibility and accountability to those involved. Therapy focuses on healing, both mentally and physically. A social/wellness program improves general wellness, and with this, therapists see more benefit in groups. Horticulture therapy can be used in community gardens, at nursing homes or assisted living facilities, prison facilities, mental health facilities and in social settings such as garden center events, at wineries/breweries and at festivals.

If you’re intrigued by the concept, Brookfield mentioned the benefits you could tout regarding horticulture therapy: It improves mood and social skills, promotes emotional growth, reduces stress – “There’s actually bacteria in soil [Mycobacterium vaccae] that can boost serotonin,” she pointed out – improves memory and cognition and there can be physical improvements as well. These programs are great for children, elderly adults, veterans, addicts and those who are developmentally challenged.

“They can plant herbs, arrange flowers, participate in plant propagation, herb drying, raised bed gardening, seed starting and more,” Brookfield said.

She has seen the power of horticulture therapy in having worked with Emerge Greenhouse for eight years. A Maryland-based organization that supports individuals with developmental, physical and mental health disabilities, they serve more than 450 people. Emerge Greenhouse provides horticulture therapy services and job development services to those with developmental disabilities.

If you’re looking for new events to host at your farm, nursery or greenhouse, it might behoove you to consider a calming horticulture therapy event. You can create one yourself, or you can contact Brookfield via her BotaniGal Facebook page for help in planning.