Horticultural Therapy – an uncertified analysis of my own personal case

One of my earliest and most frequently recalled memories is eating a warm tomato, picked right of the vine, on the way to elementary school. I can still remember the taste, the smell, yes, even the temperature of that fruit that I picked from my grandma’s garden before we left in the morning. I think about this moment so often I’m not even confident it’s real anymore – and the significance of it isn’t really all that clear, except that I knew I wanted to replicate it.

So last spring, I set out to start my own tomatoes from seed for my first garden that summer – and I’m not proud to say it, but I obsessed over it! I found the perfect most sunny spot in the whole house (the front guest room) and had Mike move the furniture out of the way to make room for my new project. I positioned the seed pods just so over the heat vent so they could benefit from the heat and the blowing air (tomatoes need a breeze, you see). I checked their water levels every morning and I checked their growth every afternoon. When they outgrew their pods I replanted them and re-staked them and turned them and moved them. And March turned into May and I had a forest of tomato plants growing in the living room that I’d need to host 30+ women in for a bridal shower. I planned a garden party theme and half intended to incorporate the tomato plants into the d├ęcor (sorry, Tatum).

I was so excited to finally plant these little babies in our outdoor garden beds, too eager in fact that I set them out a tad early and ended up covering them with blankets to protect from frost each night, and uncovering them each morning so they could absorb the warm sun and become acclimatized. “Nigh’ night lil’ matos,” was a normal phrase in those days. As they grew I learned that I needed to prune them back on several occasions. We re-staked them again when they flopped over from weight. I prayed for them when hail was threatened. I watered them diligently on the few hot days we were blessed with. I bragged. I oggled. Like I said – I was obsessed.

And finally, after more than a half a year of work I ate my first tomato on an early September evening, around the time kids would go back to school. And it was warm, and juicy, and tangy and ripe with fond memory.

So I don’t share this story to be a literal nightmare to the tomato-hating portion of the population. I share it because for the first time in a while I was spending a lot of time on something that was giving me a lot of reward in return (aside from a nutritious and delicious snack).

Horticultural therapy, if you haven’t heard of it, is defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association as “a process in which plants and gardening activities are used to improve the body, mind and spirits of people.”  The therapy itself is usually facilitated by a trained therapist with specific goals in mind, but while you don’t have to necessarily seek professional guidance to see the benefits of other therapy methods such as meditation, pacing, and other anxiety-reducing strategies, I don’t believe you need to work with a horticulturalist to see the benefits of gardening and working with plant-life.

Blue sky, birds chirping, getting my hands dirty – what’s not to love?

So here’s how my new project of growing tomatoes (and other veggies) has been helping me with my recovery:

  • I built more fond memories. It’s been hard to participate in a lot of activities that would leave me with new experiences under my belt, so having the capacity to engage in a hobby and interest that brings new sensations and memories is really exciting. The smell of earth, the cool splash of the sprinkler, the progress photos on my camera!
  • I gained a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I put in the work, and gained the reward.
  • I engaged in gentle exercise; puttering around the house to find light for the seedlings, tilling small shovels full of soil, and pruning plants allowed me the opportunity for light movement inside and outside of the house. I took many light load trips, watched my movements when bending and turning, but I was off the couch and out and about.
  • It taught me patience and acceptance of imperfections. Each seed I planted didn’t produce a tomato plant, and each plant grew didn’t produce a tomato. But I put in the effort anyway, and proudly accepted the yield I was granted.
  • It showed me physical proof that setbacks are temporary and not a true demise. Leaves heal from hail damage. Wilted plants bounce back stronger from drought. Pests can be managed.
  • I was given a new identity, conversation starter, and way to bond with others.
  • I increased my consumption of organic, nutrient-rich matter, which helps all bodies be their best versions.
  • I played in the dirt – which actually has a number of health benefits on its own.
  • I built, and continue to build new and stronger support systems. Neighbors popped over to see what we were growing. My garden mentor gave me all the time in the world. I felt energized by the passion of the workers at my favorite gardening centre.

While I don’t have a thesis or an experimental design or a research grant to back up my support of the benefits of horticultural therapy-ish, I’ve very much attributed the joy, purpose, and pride that I felt last year to the work that I’ve put into our garden. And the therapy will continue this year, not only for myself, but through my extension of sharing this with others. I’d welcome anyone to join me for a glass of wine, and some soil searching (see what I did there?).

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