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Horticultural therapy: How gardening can aid in eating disorder recovery

Horticultural therapy, sometimes called "hortitherapy," is a type of experiential therapy where patients engage in guided gardening alongside a professional who is trained in both plant science and human-based science.

The goal is to help someone cultivate insight and healing during these sessions by imbuing patients with the lessons of gardening and nature. The activity can also help counteract the unhelpful thoughts or behaviors associated with a number of mental health conditions.

It's thought that horticulture therapy can help reduce anxiety, enhance mood, and improve someone's relationship with food and eating, which is why this type of therapy can be helpful for people who are in recovery from an eating disorder.1

5
 minute read
Last updated on 
March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024
Can gardening aid in eating disorder recovery?
In this article

Horticulture therapy: How it works

At first, it might sound strange to practice horticultural therapy when gardening is a relatively easily accessible activity. But gardening therapy is different from gardening at home. The professional guidance from a specialized horticultural therapist can make it feel like an entirely different experience.1

While these experts may not have a license to practice psychotherapy specifically (though some also do), they must pass a horticultural therapy certificate program, are generally familiar with the effects of mental illness, and have extensive knowledge related to the principles of horticultural therapy.2

Learn about the different types of therapy we use at Within and what to expect when you enter into remote treatment.

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Horticultural therapists may have a bachelor’s degree in their field, whereas licensed therapists generally have at least a master’s degree in a psychology-related field.

A course of sessions involves specific therapeutic treatment goals established through an individual treatment or rehabilitation plan. Mental and physical well-being is encouraged through active or passive involvement with plants or horticultural activities.

This kind of activity can prove therapeutic for many people in eating disorder recovery because, in caring for and nurturing plants, patients are often able to better see or understand how they need to give themselves that same type of care and love.1 It also touches on the idea that proper nutrition is essential for growth. And patients who grow food-related plants can make even further connections between their practice and the importance of food and nourishment.

Examples of gardening therapy

Every horticultural therapy program has a slightly different approach, aside from catering sessions to individual patients' specific goals and needs. But some common therapeutic horticulture activities include:3

  • Taking care of at least one type of plant
  • Guided exploration of a plant, using every sense
  • Mixing soil
  • Learning how to use fertilizer
  • Watering plants
  • Learning the practical uses of various plants
  • Practicing plant transplantation
  • Mindful eating and tasting fruits
  • Designing a pot garden or garden plot
  • Experiencing the smells of various herbs
  • Vegetable harvesting and cooking
  • Pressing flowers

These activities can help someone cultivate an appreciation of nature and build more awareness of the outside world, which can be particularly helpful for someone struggling with a condition as isolating as an eating disorder.

Of course, horticultural therapy is not limited to the above activities, and what works for you may not be particularly helpful for someone else. Just as eating disorder treatment plans are tailored to meet your needs, horticultural therapy also meets you where you are at.

Benefits of horticultural therapy

Horticultural therapy has many benefits for those in eating disorder recovery, such as:1,2,3

  • Developing a healthy relationship with the food you grow
  • Cultivating community
  • Improving self-worth and self-esteem
  • Improving cognitive abilities and memory
  • Enhancing language skills and socialization
  • Improving task initiation, maintenance, and completion (the ability to begin new tasks, stay motivated, and persevere to complete them)
  • Increasing mental well-being
  • Promoting a sense of accomplishment and purpose
  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Fostering patience and peacefulness
  • Appreciating the resilience of plants and the miracle of life
  • Improving focus

Additionally, horticultural therapy has proven beneficial for people with other mental disorders as well, such as depression, which often co-occurs with eating disorders.3 And it can work almost as a form of exposure therapy, helping people with specific phobias related to disordered eating, such as contamination phobias or fears of certain food groups, work through that apprehension in a controlled, safe way.

On a more fundamental level, the activity also allows someone to enjoy engaging in joyful movement, and the therapeutic benefits of sunshine and fresh air should never be underestimated. The act of gardening is known to enhance mood and can help someone establish a sense of pride and accomplishment and feel more relaxed.

Horticulture therapy and therapeutic gardens

Horticulture therapy occurs in a therapeutic garden, a plant-dominated area intentionally designed for people to interact with nature and experience healing. These interactions can be both active and passive, depending on the individual’s needs and treatment plan.4

Therapeutic gardens differ from standard gardens in that they are an intentional space for horticultural therapy to take place. Features may include sensory-oriented plants focused on scent, texture, and color, raised containers and planting beds, and accessible paths and entrances.4

Several types of therapeutic gardens exist, such as:4
  • Rehabilitation gardens
  • Restorative gardens
  • Enabling gardens
  • Healing gardens

Horticultural therapists and landscapers often collaborate to create therapeutic gardens accessible to people of all different abilities, skill levels, and more. However, as important as the environment is to healing, having a knowledgeable therapist well-versed in horticultural therapy concepts often makes the experience so impactful from a mental health perspective.4

The link between gardening therapy and mindful eating

Gardening therapy can also be easily connected to mindful eating, another concept that helps many people in eating disorder recovery, as both activities heavily revolve around awareness.

Mindful eating involves cultivating an awareness of the entire act of preparing and eating food, including focusing on colors, smells, textures, and tastes, as well as paying attention to how food makes one feel when it's consumed. The hope is to help someone build a more intimate relationship with food and learn to experience the pleasure of eating.

Another key component of mindful eating is expressing gratitude for food: where it comes from and how it energizes and nourishes the body. When someone works to grow that food from seed and understands the work that goes into bringing something from a seed to a sprout to a thriving plant, it can create an even deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for what appears on the plate.

The hope is that appreciation and gratitude can spread from the garden to the kitchen and more fully into someone's life. Horticultural therapy gives someone struggling with an eating disorder or other type of mental health condition the chance to plant the seed of happiness deep within and give it what it needs to grow.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Smith, B. E. R. (2020). Implementing Horticultural Therapy in Eating Disorder Recovery. National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed January 2024.
  2. Horticultural Therapy. (n.d.). American Horticultural Therapy Association. Accessed January 2024.
  3. Siu, A., Kam, M., & Mok, I. (2020). Horticultural Therapy Program for People with Mental Illness: A Mixed-Method Evaluation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 711. 
  4. About Therapeutic Gardens. (n.d.). American Horticultural Therapy Association. Accessed January 2024.

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