Note: This article, from Amy Chillag, was published on CNN.com. Chillag is producer of special projects for CNN.
It’s a warm, sunny morning in Tony Wright’s lush backyard in Roswell, Georgia. The retired human-resources manager sits on a folding chair and gazes around in contemplation, surrounded by shade trees and chirping birds. He sips coffee and reads from his 12-step program book, Daily Reflections. Then he takes a slow walk through his garden, observing how his plants are doing and what they might need.
This is how Wright begins every morning. It’s a routine the youthful-looking 68-year-old started after years of struggling with addiction. He begins by potting petunias, digging his large hands into the soil and then pouring water from a watering can to nourish the transplant.
“Even if I’m just watering a plant or trimming a bush, it just gets me in touch with nature, and I try to listen to what nature’s trying to tell me that morning,” Wright said.
Wright tends his garden every day, inspired by his own horticultural therapy, stating that it makes him feel lighter.
“Depression made me feel very heavy,” he said.
Four years ago, Wright was introduced to horticultural therapy while in treatment at a mental health center called Skyland Trail in Atlanta. There, he learned that horticultural therapy is a professional practice that uses plants and gardening to improve mental and physical health. A horticultural therapist works with any group that can benefit from interaction with plants, including veterans, children, the elderly, and those dealing with addiction and mental health problems.
“I was having severe issues with depression and alcoholism, and they were taking quite a toll on my life, quite a toll on my family and relationships,” Wright said. Nearly every day for three months, Wright spent time in Skyland’s greenhouse.
“It was therapy, and I didn’t know it was therapy. No one was sitting down saying, ‘OK, now we’re in therapy, and here is what we do,’” Wright said. “When I’m touching a plant … it’s a very calming experience. It was really, really a godsend for me.”
The mental and physical benefits of nature
Horticultural therapy is rooted in the idea that interacting with plants can bring about well-being, whether it’s tending a garden or just having plants in your home. Many studies have found that just being in nature—such as taking a walk through a garden, a park, a forest—can improve not only your state of mind but also your blood pressure, heart rate, and stress-hormone levels. Over time, he it can lead to a longer life.
But taking care of a plant or a garden with guidance from a therapist goes a step further. The clients “are the caretakers, and that’s an important role for people who are on the receiving end of medical care,” said Joel Flagler, a professor of horticultural therapy at Rutgers University.
Studies have found that horticultural therapy supports recovery and improves mood, resulting in shorter stays for many populations, such as mental health facilities and hospitals. One study out of Rutgers that Flagler cites looked at the impact of Japanese gardens on a group of Alzheimer’s patients.
“Patients with advanced dementia were seen to have greatly improved short-term memory retention after a horticulture session,” Flagler said. “Some of the participants remembered the chirping sound of a cricket in the garden almost two weeks after the event.”
Helping those in wheelchairs, special needs
And for those in wheelchairs, container and box gardening brings the soil and plants to the level they need. Extender tools help them reach, and horticultural therapists teach them how to use the tools.
Rachel Cochran started the Atlanta nonprofit Trellis Horticultural Therapy Alliance after her daughter was hit by a car, causing a traumatic brain injury. The horticultural therapist found that there weren’t many opportunities in the city for special-needs students to access special gardens.
“We bring in flowers,” Cochran said. “We make homemade birdseed so they can put their hands in a big bucket of seeds. We bring in pine cones, mosses, bright flowers, yellow and red. We put a bird feeder right on the window.”
Not only is it stimulating for the students, Cochran stated, “it’s also boosting the mental state and health of the teachers. Being caretakers can be very mundane and repetitive.”
An ‘ancient bond’
Plants are unique in that they offer sensory stimulation: scent, texture, taste, and sound, like leaves rustling in the wind and bamboo creaking. Plants also reward the individual with change: a new leaf, a new fruit, a new flower, and perhaps a new fragrance.
Trees and vegetation have always provided us food, medicine, and shelter. People and plants share an ancient bond, according to Flager.
“Now, we’re able to use that people-plant connection for therapy and rehabilitation,” he said.
In his lush backyard in Georgia, Tony Wright agreed, saying that working in a garden helps him realize he’s part of something much bigger. His daily struggles seem diminished. “The garden is a living thing,” Wright said. “So, it has its own flow. Sun comes up; the sun goes down. Plant responds to light; it responds to darkness. We do the same thing.”