Fight Depression and Anxiety with a Therapy Garden

Learn about the therapeutic properties of horticulture and gardening.

Boy planting a garden

Studies suggest children who garden see significant increases in science achievement scores, improvement in social skills, and an increased interest in eating fruits and vegetables.

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Being in a garden, surrounded by beautiful plants and doing simple, manual tasks such as deadheading, weeding and watering can calm the mind and lift the spirit, says Karen Kennedy, a horticulture therapist with a private practice in the Cleveland area and a faculty member at the Horticulture Therapy Institute (htinstitute.org). In her work helping people who have been “touched by cancer,” either as a patient or caregiver, Kennedy uses plants, gardening activities and garden landscapes to help them improve their mental and physical health. “It’s amazing to see them relax, become engaged in the process and take a break from the issues they’re dealing with,” Kennedy says. Here, she shares some horticulture therapy techniques and tips for creating a therapeutic garden.

SYMBOLIC GESTURES: Plant things that are meaningful to you and evoke happy feelings. Maybe you associate lilacs with your mother because they bloom around Mother’s Day, or lilies remind you of your wedding day because they were in your bouquet. Perhaps you include cucumbers in your garden because you have fond memories of making pickles with your grandmother. The more positive associations you can create in your garden, the more opportunities you’ll have to change your outlook, Kennedy says.

SECRET GARDEN: Another key element of a therapeutic garden is creating privacy and the ability to lose yourself in a plant-rich environment. Try to carve out a quiet, private space where you can sit, relax and admire the garden without being seen or disturbed—perhaps a comfortable bench ensconced within evergreen shrubs or living walls. To give your mind a break from stressful or negative thoughts, Kennedy suggests bringing your journal and writing down details you notice such as a bee coming and going, a leaf turning over in the wind, or whatever captures your interest.

GOOD SCENTS: Stop and smell the roses—literally. Scent is a powerful sensory stimulus that can calm us and help us connect more deeply with nature. Trail fragrant plants such as roses, honeysuckle and jasmine along pergolas and arbors so you can enjoy them at nose-height. Plant calming chamomile or thyme in pathways so they release a pleasing fragrance when you walk on them. Grow lavender, and breathe in its soothing scent, which can help relieve headaches and lower heart rate and blood pressure.

EASY DOES IT: Horticulture therapists modify healing gardens to help ease the task of gardening and make it more enjoyable. If you have a bad back or limited mobility, consider creating tall raised beds or container gardening. Design clear, accessible pathways throughout your garden, and keep your cool under shade canopies. If you don’t have the space or time for a large garden, Kennedy suggests creating a small herb garden in a large pot. Regular picking will help keep herbs small and healthy, and foster a strong connection with the plants.

COLOR CODED: Warm colors—reds, oranges and yellows—can pick us up when we’re feeling lethargic or depressed; use them in active areas of the garden where you want to eat or entertain. Cool blues and purples are calming and perfect for parts of the garden where you want to unwind. Use color in plantings as well as garden structures, furniture and accessories.

HERBAL TONIC: Many medicinal herbs can help reduce stress and anxiety. Some include St. John’s wort, lemon balm, lavender, chamomile and valerian, which can be made into soothing teas and tinctures. While horticulture therapists do not “prescribe” medicinal herbs, Kennedy likes to create calming bath bags. All you need is a simple cotton bag with a drawstring top. Fill it with herbs and flowers grown and harvested from your garden—lavender, chamomile and rose petals, for example—and hang it under the running water as the bathtub fills to release a soothing scent.


Benefits of Horticulture Therapy

In a recent study published in the Journal of Nursing Care, researchers found that Korean women living in a rural area benefitted significantly from horticultural therapy. The women who underwent 12 weeks of therapy (two 90-minute sessions a week)—including numerous activities such as viewing flowers, growing sprouts and making crafts with natural materials—experienced significantly improved psychological well-being and an improved sense of hope, as compared with a control group. The women also developed interpersonal relationships, reported positive sentiments and improved self-expression during the course of therapy.

Gregory Bratman, an award-winning scientist, found in a recent study that, as compared with an urban walk, taking a 50-minute walk in a natural setting resulted in decreased anxiety, rumination and negativity, and preserved overall positivity, as well as improving performance on memory tests.

Several studies point to the positive effects of gardening on children. In 2011, researchers in Ohio learned that a gardening program at a juvenile rehab center helped kids see themselves in a better light and helped them better manage behavioral and emotional problems. Most of the children involved in the study said they wanted to continue gardening after the program ended.