Garden Therapy: Sow a Seed, Reap Mental Well-Being


There are numerous advantages to gardening. One of them, of course, is the opportunity to eat the food that grows in your garden. Another advantage is a sound mind.

You might be surprised to learn that gardening is actually being used by mental health service professionals to treat some of their clients. It’s called horticultural therapy, and it’s used to build social skills and self-esteem.

The benefits

“Horticultural therapy engenders the person on the receiving end of care to become a caretaker themselves, a transformative and life-altering process,” said John Beirne, horticultural therapist at NewBridge Services, a nonprofit mental health organization in New Jersey.

“It’s the process of using nature, plants, and gardening as a structured and goal-driven vehicle toward wellness. Plants help people heal! Clients also develop skills that are transferable to the workplace, including responsibility, cooperation, and follow-through.”

NewBridge has partnered with the Mental Health Association Morris County (MHAMC) to create a garden suitable for horticulture therapy. Currently, between 10 and 20 clients tend to the garden. Some of the produce grown in that garden was donated to an interfaith charity in the area.

How it started

Last spring, about 40 clients planted vegetables such as corn, beans, lettuce, peppers, cabbage, and eggplant at the Morris County Park Commission’s (MCPC) Community Garden. That horticultural therapy project was initiated by Robin Coley, who is a self-help specialist with the MHAMC.

Coley noticed that mental health services are moving toward horticultural therapy. She enlisted Beirne’s assistance and, once the MCPC approved of the project, everything fell into place.

“There were 30 people at the first meeting,” she said. “Everybody was so interested. The program started in similar fashion to any grass roots project, building upon itself.”

Not “patients”

It should be noted that the people who tend the garden are not called patients by the mental health professionals. They are called consumers or clients instead.

The clients work the garden on Monday mornings. They use a rotating schedule which is necessary because of limits on transportation. “They love it and have a great time,” Coley said.

Other benefits

Clients not only reap a reward of great food, but they also enjoy a harvest of friends. They joke with one another and bond while working the garden.

The gardening program has actually earned an award. The MHA New Jersey gave the gardening program a Leadership Award. Coley also said that some of the other MHA chapters in the Garden State offered support for the program. “Much in mental health is on a crisis basis,” she said. “This is a prevention opportunity to focus on mental wellness.”

Beirne added: “The clients are leaning life skills and an appreciation for contributing to their community. We encouraged clients to eat some of the vegetables from the organic and chemical-free garden. Many of them came back and said they had never tasted such good vegetables!”

Indeed, it does seem to be a common thread of human experience that food grown in one’s own garden is superior in taste to the food purchased at the local grocery store.

He added, “At the NewBridge Enrich garden, which fronts busy Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Pequannock, stereotypes about mental illness are being rooted out. Visitors see that our clients are creative, talented people.”

“Rooted out” … that’s clever.

Unusual therapy

Horticulture therapy points to an offbeat and less well-known trend in mental health care. However, the fact that it’s unusual does not mean it’s ineffective.

Some people find the adoption of a pet to be very therapeutic. Some use Reiki and/or reflexology to treat stress and improve circulation. Others use e-cigarettes to cure their nicotine addiction.

Whatever unusual means people choose to treat their ailments, physical or mental, it’s nice to know that quite a few people in New Jersey are weeding out mental illnesses.

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