Horticultural Therapy And Its Impact On Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Spending time outdoors amidst nature can often bring a sense of tranquility as you take in the serenity of the environment. You might experience similar effects on your mental health when engaging in gardening and plant-based activities. As it turns out, gardening can be a form of therapy, also known as horticultural therapy. 

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Online therapy can be an effective treatment option

Horticultural therapy may help individuals improve their emotional, social, physical, and cognitive health. With the help of a horticultural therapist, you may find that gardening is an effective option to support you during challenging times. You may also find that it can be helpful for self-improvement in different areas of your life. Continue reading to learn more about horticultural therapy and its impact on mental health. 

What is horticultural therapy?

Horticultural therapy is a therapeutic practice that uses plant-based activities to help promote mental and physical well-being. It is typically carried out by a therapist to achieve specific treatment goals. This time-tested practice has its roots in ancient times and has been documented for its numerous benefits.

In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, known as the "Father of American Psychiatry," noted the positive effects of gardening on individuals managing mental health concerns. Since then, it has evolved into an effective treatment method that can help people with various health conditions.

The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) has been supporting the development and practice of horticultural therapy concepts since 1973. Horticultural therapists work with their clients to create relevant, practical, and measurable goals. For example, someone might set a goal to feel less anxious or get stronger after being sick. By caring for plants and seeing them grow, horticultural therapy may offer a unique approach to improving mental and emotional health.

Who can benefit from horticultural therapy?

Horticultural therapy can be a versatile treatment option tailored toward the needs and goals of various groups of people. For example, horticultural therapy may help:

People with mental health needs

Those navigating mental health conditions like depression and anxiety may find comfort and peace through working with plants and being in nature. The calming environment may help relieve some of the symptoms linked to these concerns.

Individuals with physical disabilities or limitations

Gardening activities can provide a gentle form of exercise that can help improve physical health and strength. For those with physical limitations, these activities can be adapted to suit their abilities and help improve mobility and dexterity.

People with trauma-related conditions

For those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related conditions, horticultural therapy may be beneficial. The calming effect of being in a garden and the process of caring for plants may provide a safe space for emotional healing.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Seniors and individuals with dementia

Horticultural therapy might also help seniors and individuals with dementia by offering them a chance to perform stimulating tasks, refresh memories, and improve cognitive function.

Children with learning difficulties or behavioral problems

Children who face challenges in traditional learning environments may find horticultural therapy to be a helpful tool. It can help provide them with a hands-on learning experience that is both educational and therapeutic, helping improve their behavior and focus.

Benefits of horticultural therapy

Horticultural therapy may have several benefits in different areas of life, including the following:

Cognitive benefits

Horticultural therapy may help improve cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. The work involved in gardening–such as planning and making decisions about how to care for plants–may help stimulate the mind. Studies have shown exposure to nature may have a positive effect on cognitive abilities.

Emotional benefits

The therapeutic benefits of horticultural therapy on mental health are well-documented. Gardening activities have been found to greatly improve mood, reduce depression, and alleviate stress. 

This may be especially important for individuals navigating a mental illness, as working with plants can provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment that may in turn lead to improved self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Social benefits

Participating in horticultural therapy also can allow individuals to connect with others who have similar interests, thus creating a sense of community and belonging. Group gardening activities can encourage teamwork, communication, and cooperation. 

This can be especially helpful for people who have difficulty with social situations. In addition, it offers an opportunity for participants to discuss their knowledge and learn from their peers.

Physical benefits

Horticultural therapy may also be beneficial for physical rehabilitation, as it involves a range of physical activities like digging, planting, and watering. 

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These activities may help improve strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Being out in nature may also help you relax, lower your blood pressure, and improve your overall physical health.

Types of horticultural therapy

There are different types of horticultural therapy. Each may serve a different purpose and can benefit individuals in various ways. Let's take a closer look.

Therapeutic horticultural therapy

Therapeutic horticultural therapy often involves setting specific therapeutic treatment goals, such as improving social, emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of a person's life. 

This type of horticultural therapy is typically performed in therapeutic gardens where direct contact with plants is thought to help shift a person's focus from negative thoughts to more positive ones.

Activities in therapeutic horticultural therapy programs may include:

  • Planting and maintaining gardens
  • Floral arrangements
  • Harvesting produce
  • Nature-based crafts

These activities may help people learn how to manage difficult situations, improve their self-esteem, and feel better about themselves overall.

Vocational horticultural therapy

Vocational horticultural therapy is focused on helping people learn job skills related to gardening and plant science. This kind of therapy may be useful for people who want to work in jobs that involve plant nurseries, garden centers, or landscaping companies.

In vocational horticultural therapy settings, participants may:

  • Learn proper gardening techniques
  • Gain knowledge of plant identification and care
  • Understand the basics of landscape design
  • Acquire experience in greenhouse management

This skills-based training approach may also help to give participants a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Social horticultural therapy

Social horticultural therapy is designed to help people improve their skills in socializing and working together. It can be carried out through group activities related to gardening and plants. These programs provide a friendly and supportive environment where people can connect and develop social skills.

Social horticultural therapy may involve:

  • Group gardening projects
  • Discussing  gardening tips and tricks
  • Group discussions about plants and gardening
  • Collaborative nature-inspired art and craft activities

Participating in these activities may help people experience a sense of belonging, create friendships, and improve their overall social health.

How to use horticultural therapy

To incorporate horticultural therapy into a treatment plan, therapists usually develop a personalized program based on an individual’s needs and abilities.

A horticultural therapy session typically begins with the therapist guiding the client through various activities. These activities can range from gardening tasks, such as planting, watering, and pruning, to other plant-based activities, like flower arranging or herb cultivation.

Online therapy can be an effective treatment option

As the client progresses, a therapist may add new tasks or adjust existing activities to better support ongoing growth and recovery. As a result, horticultural therapy can be a flexible treatment method for improving a person’s quality of life. 

Role of horticultural therapists

Horticultural therapists are licensed professionals that have different roles and can be found working in various therapeutic settings. The role of a horticultural therapist requires a blend of knowledge in both horticulture and therapy. They might work in environments such as rehabilitation centers, hospitals, schools, community gardens, retirement centers, and correctional facilities.

To become a practicing horticultural therapist, specific education and training are required. Typically, requirements involve getting a degree in horticulture, psychology, occupational therapy, or a related field. Then, students generally undergo special training focused on how to use gardening and plant-based activities as therapeutic tools.

The AHTA provides guidelines for becoming a registered horticultural therapist. These include completing a certain number of hours of supervised internship and demonstrating practical knowledge and professional skills. Continuous horticultural therapy education can also be important, as therapists need to stay updated on the latest research and developments in the field.

The effectiveness of online therapy

Online therapy may also be a useful option for people who need mental health support. It may be effective for various conditions, including anxiety, depression, and stress management. Online therapy also offers the advantage of flexibility and convenience, making support more readily available for those who may not have access to in-person therapy.

Studies have shown that individuals who go through online therapy experience positive outcomes. For example, people with PTSD and anxiety disorders have been found to experience improvements in symptoms with online therapy. As online therapy can often be combined with in-person therapy, such as horticultural therapy, it can work for a variety of people with unique needs. 

While horticultural therapy may be a more specialized form of therapy, it may be possible for professionals in this field to adapt their practices for online support. In such cases, clients and therapists may use digital tools throughout the therapeutic process. People who are looking for therapy may want to explore their options and find the approach that suits their needs and preferences. 


Horticultural therapy is a proven method that uses gardening activities led by a trained therapist to help people with their treatment goals. These goals can involve different areas of life, such as one’s emotional, social, and physical health. Through horticultural therapy, individuals may find a sense of accomplishment, improve their physical coordination, and build social connections. It can be an effective complementary treatment option alongside traditional psychotherapy, whether conducted online or in person.
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