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Ecotherapy/ Horticultural Therapy/Dirt Therapy

Written by Mike McMahon, Founder of Urban Farming Education

There are many reasons to build a garden and develop programming around it, starting with the simple value of the produce; an analysis of our Ready Go Garden system found that the crops grown yielded a 100% return on investment within one year (or three seasons) in Maricopa County. But gardening also provides therapeutic benefits, which are more difficult to measure but arguably more significant. The process, known as “ecotherapy,” is essential for all of our focus groups: schools, people with disabilities, homeless people, the elderly, and those in foster care.

Ecotherapy is based in theories of ecopsychology that view human health, both physical and mental, in the context of the overall health of the Earth, and the ecosystems that comprise it. Many different types of activities fall under the umbrella of “ecotherapy,” one of which is greencare — itself a broad term that encompasses care farming, animal-assisted interventions (AAI), social and therapeutic horticulture (STH), healing gardens and facilitated green exercise.

The benefits of ecotherapy for human health can be physical, mental, or developmental. On the physical side, ecotherapy has been proven to aid general medical recovery by lowering a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, speeding up recovery from surgery and reducing pain. It can aid in reducing the risk of obesity, which affects more than 36% of adults and 17% of children in the United States, as well as address vitamin D deficiency, which results from a lack of sufficient exposure to sunlight. Ecotherapy can also improve outcomes for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which affects over 6 million children in the United States and reduces their capacity to focus. Children’s motor ability, concentration and social play can be improved following interaction or play in nature, reducing ADHD symptoms.

Meanwhile, horticulture therapy — a specific type of ecotherapy that involves working with plants — has shown positive effects in the morale of people with dementia, which causes symptoms such as memory loss, impaired thinking and aggressive behavior. Moreover, exposure to nature has been shown to reduce aggression in those with late-stage dementia without resorting to chemical and physical restraints.

Crucially, ecotherapy affects mood and stress levels, providing a form of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety, self-esteem issues, addiction, and general mental well-being. Many veterans have found nature to be emotionally calming, helping them manage negative emotions by immersing them in a new environment. This same concept can apply to other forms of mental illness, including stress and depression, which can be significantly reduced by utilizing healing gardens and encounters with natural ecosystems.

Finally, ecotherapy can also improve developmental outcomes for children, who are often discouraged from playing outdoors in urban areas due to safety considerations and instead are exposed to an array of indoor play facilities, from video games to indoor playgrounds. Access to green space can improve learning outcomes, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower the incidence of behavioral conduct disorder.

There is significant evidence suggesting that ecotherapy is not only beneficial for treating certain medical conditions and mental disorders, but also for general restorative effects to a person’s well-being. People who interact with their natural environment as children tend to live longer and have a better quality of life. This form of natural, unplanned “therapy” tends to lead to a more active diet and lifestyle as well as stronger connections to people and society, encouraging people to become members of groups and volunteer more. In addition, adults who were active as children have higher self-esteem, better mood, and more resilience to stress.

Horticulture therapy, such as gardening, can have long-term physical benefits like increased hand-eye coordination, finger flexion, and balance, which develop through lifting soil, digging, and standing for long periods of time. At the same time, people with physical disabilities or the elderly can also enjoy the benefits of gardening through systems like the Ready Go Garden table accessory, which brings the soil and plants to the level they need. This is helpful for people in wheelchairs or elderly people by reducing the need to work on their hands and knees. Special-needs students can benefit as well, accessing gardens where they can experience stimulation through fragrance, texture, taste and sound, like leaves rustling in the wind — and learn “green skills” in the process.

Chillag, Amy. “Working with Plants as Therapy.” CNN. Cable News Network, August 3, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/03/health/sw-horticultural-therapy/index.html

Summers, James K., and Deborah N. Vivian. “Ecotherapy – A Forgotten Ecosystem Service: A Review.” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (March 2018). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01389