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Nurtured by nature: How to extend the principles of horticultural therapy to your own home garden

Outside of simple pleasures, digging in the soil can be a powerful tool for your health and well-being.

Laurie Curtis celebrated her progress placing small succulents in a flower "dress" as Savannah Robinson, right, worked to finish up. Curtis and Robinson were participating in a horticultural therapy session for people with disabilities in the Lerner Garden of The Five Senses at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on Monday in Boothbay, Maine.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

There is a specific kind of joy that comes from growing your own tomatoes or watching those seeds you buried transform into a row of glorious sunflowers.

But outside of simple pleasures, digging in the soil can be a powerful tool for your health and well-being. That’s the basic idea behind horticultural therapy, a clinical practice designed to help individuals use gardening as part of their rehabilitation and recovery programs, for everything from strokes and arthritis to PTSD or intellectual disabilities.

Irene Brady Barber oversees the horticultural therapy program at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine. Here, in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, Barber facilitates sessions for people with a range of needs, all with the goal of supporting “the physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being of all participants,” according to the CMBG website.

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“Presented effectively,” Barber said, “gardening enables people who live with diagnosed disabilities or anyone with any physical, emotional or intellectual challenges, and connects them to something and somewhere where they can thrive and overcome [perceived] limitations.”

Irene Brady Barber showed participants in a therapy session at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens how to use their index finger to measure before cutting succulents for a horticultural therapy session project. She is a registered horticultural therapist and adult education program manager at CMBG.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

For someone who has experienced a stroke, this could mean working on hand-eye coordination, such as using a hand tool in the soil. For someone with an intellectual disability, it might be about learning personal boundaries and improving interpersonal skills. For people who are blind or visually impaired, connecting through other senses like smell, touch, and taste is an invitation into the garden.

And for those living with PTSD, where the stress of doing something new can bring a negative reaction, it can be about building coping skills that translate into everyday life.

“In a garden setting, it obviously provides a very positive environment overall,” Barber said. “However, will it become a trigger? How can we utilize the plant activity to help stabilize their stress of taking on a new responsibility or taking on a new skill?”

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In this example, the solution is to structure the task — take planting pansies, for example — with a step-by-step process. Step one: Dig a hole. Step two: Remove the pansies from the container. And so on. The idea is to mitigate that initial panic of: “I’ve never planted pansies before. How do I do this? I don’t know what to do. You can’t do this to me. What are you doing?” Barber said.

Instead, “There’s a lot of guidance, as well as providing as much independence for them to take it on themselves.”


The benefits of gardening for overall well-being are widely known and well documented — everything from lowering stress levels and improving one’s mood to boosting the immune system and getting better sleep. If you’re looking to make your own home garden more accessible, or you simply want to experience some of these good vibes yourself, we’ve outlined six tips with help from Barber:

1. Start small

It can be tempting to read about the benefits of gardening and want to immediately overhaul your entire backyard, but this could have the opposite effect. “Don’t overwhelm yourself,” Barber said. Start with just one potted plant — even if it’s a houseplant. It’s important to create a scale that you can handle.”

The idea of starting small should be extended to your plant choice as well. “Don’t go out and get a 10-foot tree. Get something that you’re going to actually nurture to that 10-foot height,” Barber said. “You can see the growth occur before your very eyes. When you are nurturing that plant, you are being nurtured in return. It’s a reciprocal experience.”

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2. Keep things close

“Out of sight, out of mind, right?” Barber said. Your garden should be located in an easy-to-access place visible from inside your home, so not only will you have no trouble getting out there, but simply seeing it will promote a rush of positive feelings. If potted plants are more your thing, keep them in a room where you spend a lot of time — like on your desk if you work from home or in the living room, where you like to unwind.

3. Work smarter, not harder

Barber said wagons for hauling things, a cushy foam pad for kneeling, and lightweight tools with fat handles (“so you don’t squeeze too hard and hurt your joints”) are all great options to help make tasks more accessible.

A number of ergonomically engineered garden tools are available during therapy sessions at the center.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

Can’t get down onto the ground? Not a problem — simply bring the ground to you. Window boxes or a tabletop covered in pots makes for a more comfortable experience and can be visually stunning at the same time. Aim for 27 to 31 inches high, which is the recommended height for sitting or standing, Barber said.

Savannah Robinson, left, teamed up with adult education program manager Irene Brady Barber during a horticultural therapy session. Robinson was part of a group from Mobius Inc. and was pushing small seedlings out of a planter pack so they could be replanted.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

4. Choose hardy, easy-to-grow plants

Succulents are an excellent choice for anyone new to plant care because they can tolerate a fair amount of neglect. For outdoor garden spaces, the peony can’t be beat. “It’s very floriferous and really hard to kill, and it has beautiful foliage,” Barber said. “And it’s versatile for sunlight exposure.”

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Tomatoes and basil are other proven winners, a classic combo that will grow quickly, smell amazing, and have versatile cooking applications. The biggest thing to remember? Just don’t make things too hard on yourself. (You may be sensing a theme here.)

5. Activate all five senses

Take a page from CMBG’s Lerner Garden of the Five Senses and see whether you can create experiences around sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch within your own gardening space. This might mean adding a water feature or windchime, aromatic plants like lilac and lavender, herbs and veggies that you enjoy cooking, or planting something like the soft and fuzzy lamb’s ear perennial, the foliage of which is just begging to be touched.

The horticultural therapy sessions take place amid the beauty of the nearly 300-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine. Here lupine provide the foreground with pink poppies in the background.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

6. Sit and enjoy

If you’re going to be outside, a shady spot where you can rest and bask in the presence of your garden is an oft-overlooked — but absolutely necessary — addition. “Find that little nook and make it your retreat as much as possible,” Barber said. “Give yourself a bench or chair to sit back and enjoy what you’ve created.”

Nicole Cammorata is the owner of Appleseed Flower Farm in York, Maine. She can be reached at ncammorata@gmail.com. Subscribe to our newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Twitter @globehomes.