Horticultural Therapy Offers Healing and Rehabilitation Benefits

My gardening journey began this past May after attending Eastern Market’s Flower Day. I had always wanted to plant a flower garden at our home, but I just never got around to it.

This year, though, I was determined to make it happen. Travis and I dived right in and literally got our hands dirty to create our flower garden. The more I worked in our garden, the more I noticed how much it was having a positive impact on me.

Horticultural Therapy
I have discovered gardening helps me with my anxiety disorder. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Hamra for Good Life Detroit)

I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but I have an anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed with the disorder in 2008. I think a lot of people misunderstand anxiety disorder and just how hard it can be for a person who is suffering from it. For me, anxiety can really take a toll on my life.

Over the years, I have taken the time to learn more about my disorder and how to implement natural remedies in coping with anxiety, such as gardening. Since beginning my gardening journey, I can honestly say it has been instrumental in my mental health care. If I would have known it would have had such a strong impact on my mental health, then I definitely would have started it years ago.

Nevertheless, I am thankful to have discovered gardening and the wonderful benefits it has for me. After I noticed how great I felt from gardening, I decided to do a little research and see if “garden therapy” was a practice managed by a professional therapist.

My research led me to horticultural therapy. I was amazed at what I had stumbled upon. Prior to researching gardening therapy, I had never heard of the practice of horticultural therapy. I was so fascinated by what I had found that I decided to take my research a step further and actually speak with an expert in the field.

A quick Google search led me to the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association (MHTA). (Did you know such organizations existed? There’s even a national organization for horticultural therapy!) The role of the MHTA is to educate and provide opportunities for anyone who is interested in horticultural therapy.

I sent out an email to inquire about interviewing a representative, and within a few days, two board members contacted me to help me arrange an interview. I connected with Mary Machon, Board Member and Newsletter Editor of the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association, and she was happy to speak with me about horticultural therapy.

Ms. Machon owns a greenhouse in Ohio, and she is also a horticultural therapist. She works with cancer patients through one of her local nonprofit organizations. Four times a year, Ms. Machon works with patients who are recovering from cancer or who are terminally ill. She leads various horticultural therapy projects such as greenery in the wintertime, creating tea, making potpourri bags.

Ms. Machon also works with the organization Good Grief and The Arc of Lucas County. Good Grief is a nonprofit organization that works with children who have lost one or both of their parents. The Arc of Lucas County is an organization that serves developmentally disabled young adults. Ms. Machon says she works with The Arc twice a year to teach young adults gardening and also create fun projects such as dying t-shirts with plant material.

Photo courtesy Craig Hospital


The History of Horticultural Therapy

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), horticultural therapy uses techniques to assist participants to learn new skills or regain those that are lost. The practice helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization.

“It’s basically, physical therapy using plants,” Ms. Machon explained, “that is given by a horticultural therapist to a client and specific measurements are taken at the end of each session. It’s different than therapeutic horticulture. Therapeutic horticulture can take place anywhere with anyone.” A horticultural therapist must be a registered therapist through the national organization, whereas anyone can practice therapeutic horticulture. No official registered status is needed.

Horticultural therapy was first practiced in the 1600s. Psychiatric hospitals used gardening to help psychiatric patients. According to the AHTA, the Father of American Psychiatry Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first person to document the positive effects of working in a garden had on mental illness.

“But it really wasn’t something that came into light until probably around the 1950s,” Ms. Machon said. It was during the 50s when the term “horticultural therapy” was coined and that’s when training for the practice began.

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There are many key benefits of horticultural therapy.

In 1951, Detroit native and psychiatric social worker Alice Burlingame started a horticulture program at the Pontiac Michigan State Hospital. Ms. Burlingame discovered horticultural therapy had strong positive effects on people with disabilities and older adults. She concluded horticultural therapy needed to become “a separate and distinct profession.”

A year later, Burlingame and Dr. Donald Watson held a week-long workshop at Michigan State University (MSU). The workshop was successful and soon MSU became the first university to offer classes in horticultural therapy. In 1955, the first master of science degree in horticultural therapy was awarded to occupational therapist Genevieve Jones.

Alice Burlingame and Dr. Watson later published the first textbook in horticultural therapy called Therapy Through Horticulture. Two years later, The Handbook of Horticultural Therapy was published by the National Council of State Garden Clubs. The handbook was designed to “support volunteers in horticultural therapy programming, specifically garden club members.”

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These students are part of the LifePrep program at Nazareth College. They are students with disabilities and are benefiting from Horticultural Therapy. )Photo courtesy Dr. Beverly J. Brown)


The Benefits of Horticultural Therapy

There are many key benefits of horticultural therapy. Many times a horticultural therapist will partner with their client’s primary care provider to work together on creating goals for their client. Here are a few key benefits of horticultural therapy:

Elevated mood and a reduction in depression 

Improved motor skills

Decrease in the amount of pain medication a patient takes

Feeling a stronger sense of purpose

Decrease in blood pressure

Increase in range of focus, motion, mobility, and well-being

The benefits, of course, vary from person to person. Ms. Machon says, “It really varies according to who your client is and what it is you’re trying to do.”

For instance, a person who is incarcerated may experience different positive results than a person who has Alzheimer’s. The horticultural therapist will make specific goals for each client and discuss the goals in the beginning with the client. “[The therapist] makes sure that you’re attaining those goals in a very strategic manner,” Ms. Machon explained.

Photo courtesy of the American Horticultural Therapy Association


More Hospitals and Organizations are Turning to Horticultural Therapy

Many hospitals and organizations across the country have horticultural therapy programs. For instance, some “Step Down” prison programs offer horticultural therapy for inmates. Ms. Machon trained in a Cook County Step Down program in Chicago. During her training there, she worked with inmates between the ages of 16 to 30. She said many of the inmates were serving time for drug use and selling guns.

According to Dr. Sander van der Linden’s article “The Rise of Green Prison Programs”, gardening programs offer an opportunity for relief from such harsh social environments. Long-standing research in psychology and neuroscience has consistently shown that nature is restorative; even brief exposure to the natural environment can improve physical and mental health.

Horticultural therapy is also offered at Hope Network in Lansing, MI. Patients with traumatic brain injuries greatly benefit from therapy practice. A board member of the MHTA is a horticultural therapist at Hope Network and she works with patients who have traumatic brain injuries. Many of the patients have problems with hand-eye coordination. Therapy projects such as using seeds to make art help the patients with their coordination.

Horticulture Therapy
Meredith Kotelec, a University of Maryland intern with the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Operations tends to The People’s Garden planted on the North East coner of USDA. (Photo courtesy USDA)

“She (the therapist) uses really large colorful seeds where it’s a higher stimulation,” Ms. Machon explained to me. “She has [the patients] make art with the seeds. It’s very tactile. She does a lot of things with herbs. It’s very sensual. A lot of herbs are a good choice for people who are using horticultural therapy because it works with more than one scent. You can smell it, but you also can feel it. Sometimes your herbs are very sticky or sometimes they’re very sharp so a lot of times when you have more senses engaged during your therapy you are more successful.”

Ms. Machon said other professionals are also taking up horticultural therapy. Social workers are learning horticultural therapy for their clients. More healthcare professionals are also becoming registered horticultural therapists so they can add it to their practice regimen.

Photo courtesy of Jefferson Health


Insurance Coverage for Horticultural Therapy

Unfortunately, horticultural therapy is not covered by insurance companies. This is something the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association hopes will change in the future.

“It’s been a struggle for the horticultural therapy association to get it out there, but it’s happening,” Ms. Machon said. She went on to say in order to have horticultural therapy covered, a patient would have to consult with an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or a recreational therapist who has insurance billing abilities.

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Members assigned to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., spread mulch in horticultural therapy gardens at the Hampton Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Hampton, Va, Oct. 22, 2016.Gardens with plants that have colors, textures, and fragrances that elicit a healing response are referred to as therapeutic gardens. (Photo courtesy: Unit 633rd Air Base Wing DVIDS)

How to Learn More About Horticultural Therapy

There are a few ways you can get more information about horticultural therapy if you are interested. You can visit the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association website to learn more about the practice.

You can email the MHTA at A representative from the association will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

The MHTA also hosts a yearly conference in March. Information for the 2019 conference will be updated on the website around October or November so be sure to check back then, or you can email the MHTA for immediate feedback.


Special thanks to Mary Machon from the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association for taking the time to interview with Good Life Detroit!










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