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Unblurring the line between therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy

by | 30 Jun 23 | Featured Slider, Features, Long Reads, Website Exclusive

Lady crouched in garden of plants

The global pandemic saw a significant push for global mental health reform and an uptake in mainstream media coverage, singling out the therapeutic benefits of engaging with nature. Now as we enter into a post COVID world, the line between therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy remains dangerously blurred for many.

Annabelle Padwick, the founder of Life at No.27, a UK based mental health organisation and horticultural therapy provider is advocating for changes to the legislations, a clearer depiction of the connections between horticulture and mental health and increased funding to create this new equilibrium.

The Horticultural Sector committee at present is conducting an inquiry and subsequent report into the future of horticulture and mental health, with reference to how the two are affiliated.

Padwick attended the committee at the House of Lords on 22 June to put forward evidence and personal recommendations guided by evidential support from her work in the sector.

Life at No. 27 founder, Annabella Padwick

“My biggest push was for the regulation of therapeutic activities, the regulation of the industry to make sure the people that are delivering horticultural therapy or therapeutic activities that involve gardening, are sufficiently clear in what they can offer, trained, and qualified and supported to do so.”

The heightened media coverage of therapeutic horticulture has spread across multiple sectors, causing potentially dangerous misinformation, and blurring the line further.

“The original term was always social and therapeutic horticulture, which I think is fine. But then everyone’s taken that and turned it into horticultural therapy and being horticultural therapists, but that gives it a totally different meaning.

“Becoming a therapist takes years of training, at least 4 years of in person counselling, psychotherapy, physiotherapy or nursing based studies, which many people offering horticultural therapy do not have. As soon as a GP ‘prescribes’ something and offers a ‘therapist’, it indicates that there will be level of professional mental health expertise and care offered.”

“It might certainly offer people therapeutic outcomes, but therapeutic horticulture with a therapeutic gardener or horticulturalist, is not going to significantly improve or change someone’s mental health in the long term, which is what horticultural therapy with a therapist would aim to do.”

Life at No.27 uses human connection and nature engagement to support those experiencing mental ill health, while demonstrating the fundamental similarities between caring for nature and oneself.

“I always say to people if you forget to look after yourself, just think about what a plant needs, and if you forget how to look after a plant, think about what you need and it’s the exact same.

“And learning about resilience, when things don’t go right the importance of looking at why things haven’t gone right, and then if you can change things, look at how you can adapt and change things.”

Underlining the therapeutic benefits that gardening and caring for nature can provide but only in a transient moment if not guided by trained support.

“It gives opportunities to learn how to look after yourself, it gives opportunities to ground yourself if you’re getting caught up in circular thoughts, or catastrophizing.

Annabelle’s personal allotment

“Being able to be out in the garden or being present and connecting with nature can definitely help ground yourself to the present moment and break that cycle of your brain going round and around, catastrophizing.

“As soon as you stop that, the thoughts will probably come back and that’s where I put the caveat in, in terms of its therapeutic opportunity. Therapeutic horticulture is not going to stop your brain going round, it’s going to pause it and give you a respite from it.”

The continued misconception around horticultural therapy has the potential to create an isolating preconception of horticultural professionals suffering with mental ill health, fears Padwick. Perennial reported in their latest wellbeing report that 85% of professionals in horticulture, stated that their mental health was poor or below average.

“This uniformed knowledge around gardening, then leads to a consequential stigma and thinking, ‘well, all the media’s saying that we’ve got great mental health.’ So for professional gardeners struggling with their mental health, it’s potentially even harder for them to go to their GP and say they need help.”

Life at No.27 offer free horticultural therapy to everyone from as young as five up to any age where the attendee feels comfortable joining sessions.

“It’s totally free for a year where they can come twice a week in group sessions, get their support, but also get that education, get their own allotment plot.

“They can do a donation if they want but it’s all totally free, which is why we struggle with funding massively, but we have always wanted to make it as accessible as possible.”

Life at No.27 recently partnered with The Royal Foundation of The Prince and Princess of Wales to create therapy allotments and gardens in South Wales, providing free and low-cost gardening therapy and mental health support sessions.

With the aspiration to create a safe and accessible environment for everyone to experience the therapeutic nature of horticulture coupled with trained therapy support to provide long term benefits.

Padwick’s address to the House of Lords will provide potential guidance to policymakers and industry professionals, impacting future legislation, with the Horticulture Sector Committee’s report scheduled for release in November.

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