Last year I called an avid gardener that I know to set up an interview for an article I was writing for a national publication. She agreed to do the interview but asked that it not take place until after the upcoming weekend. “I have a friend who has cancer,” she said, “And I am going up to Boston to make a garden for her.” The next day she set off in her car with a trunk full of plants. I know that garden is flourishing now, because its creator has a magic touch. I hope that magic will combine with strong medicine to give comfort and even cure to her stricken friend.

Another friend, recovering from surgery that will keep her out of the garden for six weeks, was housebound and unhappy. When an acquaintance called to ask my friend if there was anything she needed, she replied, “Come and pick all the flowers from the garden and bring them inside.” They are now in vases throughout her house, lifting her spirits and helping her set her sights on the day when she can once again “lug forty-pound sacks of cow manure.”

Without knowing it, both my friends were participating in horticultural therapy, a life-giving practice that has been going on for over a century in institutional settings, and, in private gardens since the beginning of horticulture.

The American Horticultural Therapy Association describes horticultural therapy as “a process utilizing plants and horticultural activities to improve the social, educational, psychological and physical adjustment of persons, thus improving their bodies, minds, and spirits.” Now that many institutions have embraced holistic approaches to healing, guided and structured horticultural therapy activities take place in nursing homes, adult daycare centers, prisons, schools, parks, and botanical gardens. In addition, every gardener I know, receives unstructured horticultural therapy amidst the roses, weeds, tomato plants and clumps of Montauk daisies that make up the average home garden.

In a way, a large segment of the U.S. population participated in state-sponsored horticultural therapy during World War II, when the government encouraged people to plant home “Victory Gardens”. All those rows of cauliflowers, carrots and tomatoes did more than just supplement rationed foodstuffs. Tending Victory Gardens gave people all over the country a sense of common purpose and made them feel that they were helping the war effort

When the war ended, the U.S. government established a network of veterans’ hospitals throughout the U.S. to care for long term casualties of that conflict and subsequent ones. Volunteers from local garden clubs took their love and expertise with plants to the hospitalized veterans. Those volunteers found that the care of growing things, outside or in a greenhouse, helped people with physical and mental war injuries. The idea of structured horticultural therapy began to take hold.

Gardening, whether it consists of growing one potted plant on a windowsill, or a multi-acre showplace is ultimately about imposing order and a degree of control on nature. People laid low and made passive by injuries or trauma, need to reestablish feelings of confidence and control. Tending plants helps.

The late English film director Derek Jarman turned to gardening when he was diagnosed with AIDS. His garden took shape on a pebbly piece of beach, and consisted mostly of riotously colored annuals in beds decorated with seashells on poles and other flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the ocean. Clearly Derek Jarman’s garden was a work of art and an exercise in self-administered horticultural therapy all in one. It kept him going as illness overtook him. Since his death his garden has lived on, tended by a friend, as an inspiration to others.

Horticultural therapy can be formal or informal, professional or amateur, focused inward or outward. For those interested in the professional aspect, many universities, community colleges and botanical gardens offer curricula in horticultural therapy. For information on programs contact the American Horticultural Therapy Association, 909 York Street, Denver, Colorado, 80206; tel. (720) 865-3616 or online at www.ahta@ahta.org.

During the most desperate hours of the American Revolution, George Washington found a measure of comfort by thinking about the trees he would plant at Mount Vernon. As illness crept up on him, Derek Jarman found a way to make flowers grow in an inhospitable place. Separated by centuries, philosophies, vocations and circumstances, each man created a personal regimen of horticultural therapy. In this time of tragedy and uncertainty, when so much seems out of control, maybe it is time to fly the flag, do what we can for others, and go back to the garden.

Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg

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