Experiencing a Garden – Seasonal Horticultural Therapy

By Leigh Anne Starling

During the winter months, when inclement weather keeps many of us indoors, it is especially beneficial to stay connected to the more verdant seasons and their associated activities, while respecting the natural cycle of nature’s more restful state. Gardening is one life-affirming activity that can provide us with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual gifts as we await springtime.

If the climate where you live is conducive to outdoor activity during the winter months, many vegetables can be planted in early fall and supply you with a harvest until spring. Spinach, kale, mustard, and lettuce are excellent options. Root vegetables such as radishes, beets, and carrots will store well in the cold ground until ready for harvest.

Winter gardening also extends to the plants around you. While flowers, trees, and shrubs are in their dormant stage, mulching and refreshing soil with organic compost will benefit the health of the plant material and prepare it for spring. If indoor gardening is your only opportunity, today’s technology—especially LED lighting and hydroponic systems—make it possible to grow herbs and vegetables indoors. Tending a garden, however small, growing vegetables from seed to harvest, is a way to stay attuned to the cycle of life.

The benefits of working with plants have been researched by scholars and practitioners, most notably a community of therapists practicing horticultural therapy. Horticultural therapists recognize the act of planting, nurturing, and cultivating plants provides many proven benefits, among them increased physical activity, increased mental acuity, emotional health and wellness, and enhanced social interaction. The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) defines horticultural therapy as “an active process which occurs in the context of an established treatment plan where the process itself is considered the therapeutic activity rather than the end product.”

Horticultural therapists are professionally registered through AHTA, the membership organization representing the profession of horticultural therapy. Horticultural therapists work with individuals from diverse backgrounds with differing abilities using living plants as a catalyst for healing. Horticultural therapy is practiced in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor settings including hospitals, schools, botanic gardens, and senior centers.

Patients in a rehabilitation hospital recovering from an accident or illness build strength and endurance when planting or pruning in the garden. Older adults living in an assisted living program engage socially and benefit from sensory stimulation that brings about reminiscence. Someone coping with mental illness develops self-esteem and self-confidence by taking care of plants, nurturing, and observing the plants grow as a result of their care. The relationship between people and plants also offers opportunities for spiritual growth, as the individual recognizes the inherent consciousness of the plant world.

No matter the season and no matter the ability, gardening is therapeutic in all its forms. The connection to nature, the soil, and the sun can enrich our lives with mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional blessings, if we only give it a chance.

Easy to Grow Parsley

  • For a head start, plant seeds in individual pots indoors ten to twelve weeks before the last spring frost. For better germination, you can soak the seeds overnight.
  • Plant the seeds three to four weeks before the last spring frost because parsley is a slow starter. (The plants can handle the cold weather.) It can take up to three weeks for the plants to sprout.
  • Plant the seeds in moist, rich soil about six to eight inches apart. For thinner plants, plant about six to ten inches apart. Try to pick an area that is weed-free; that way, you’ll be able to see the parsley sprouting after about three weeks.
  • You can use a fluorescent light to help the seedlings grow. Make sure it remains at least two inches above the leaves at all times.
  • To ensure the best growth, the soil should be around seventy degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Plant parsley near asparagus, corn, and tomatoes in your garden.
Leigh Anne Starling is a registered horticultural therapist, a certified rehabilitation counselor, and a licensed clinical professional counselor. She has been working in the field of horticultural therapy for over thirty years. She has served on the AHTA Board of Directors since 2007 and is currently the AHTA President. www.ahta.org