Unraveling Horticultural Therapy

“Historically, and currently, most {HT} education programs are based in horticulture or plant science departments of colleges and universities, or in public gardens. Seldom are they found in human science or health care facilities. Future curricula with a higher proportion of human service and social science courses are needed to reflect the interdisciplinary competencies required of horticultural therapists who wish to practice in health care or social service arenas.” Rebecca Haller, Horticultural Therapy Methods, pg 2-3, Haller, Kramer, ed. Haworth Press, 2006

This blog is a wilderness expedition. And so it is about challenges, preparedness, surprises and a series of encounters. But mostly it really is to the letter about “horticultural” “therapy”.

The willingness to create a blog about Horticultural Therapy (HT) grew out of my need to archive and organize some of the lines of inquiry I have been privately pursuing in the past years. Rendering them public may allow for a different type of synergy. More involved, less casual, more actively responsible, less tepid, more interaction, less solitary adventuring. The blog is meant to be replete with questions and musings rather than answers. My formal HT training at NYBG and the experience gathered working with Rusk Glass Garden therapists in NYC hospitals, but certainly my background in the humanities and social sciences elucidates the origins of some of my concerns.



Living  and working in urban jungles, providing nature based services in cities, I realize first hand that  the “hortus”, the cultivated enclosure or garden can be a near daily practical challenge. This was certainly the case in NYC and it is the case in Paris. While this lack of access to a garden proper does not impede horticultural therapy  intervention, it certainly does make it necessary to imaginatively reinvent protocol. This in turn moderates how our particular brand of action therapy might proceed.

“Therapeia” from the greek, meaning healing/service, and the second half of our slightly barbaric professional nomenclature therefore deserves a good epistemological and historical unpacking of sorts. Because, as Haller suggests in her classic Horticultural Methods  textbook, we can not skimp on our humanistic pedigree. Taking our cues from the deep epistemological refonte of the humanities in full swing these past thirty years, with long and sometimes fungicidal antecedents, I propose that the HT paradigm merits our attention.

And so in ring around the rosie fashion I shall be asking some basic questions that might even sound falsely rhetorical if not downright unprofessional since I am already a practitioner. For example, what sort of a thing is the therapeutic process in the hands of the Horticultural Therapist (HT)? What specifically, besides “the garden”, sets us apart, and from whom? How might these assumptions around skills or competences or talents require revision? Constant revision?  How might this change as new forms of intervention appear on the holistic spectrum (for example body-mind interventions which look at “selves” askew, preferring to speak of the no-self)?  What theoretical psychological orientations might the veteran wield, what essential self knowledge leads to the HT’s  own “authentic” therapeutic style? And how might all of this paradigmatic befuddlement make our services to our patients, clients, participants –because they, afterall, are our primary concern– more enriching?

As collorary, but certainly not peripheral, what of this business of gardens…and gardening? The question begs to be asked: well? what type of garden? With what sorts of plants? How shall it be built? Shall we count the ways? The weavers garden for the textile art therapist, the culturally salient garden for refugees, immigrants, exiles, the ephemeral gardens of land artists and botanical wizards and floral designers, the gardens of Derek Jarman, and Ian Smiths, the gardens of outsiders, le postier Cheval, defiant gardeners, nomadic gardeners, imaginary gardeners, indoor gardeners, armchair gardeners, miniature gardeners, digital gardeners, les habitants paysagistes…whatever are they getting up to…and how therapeutic are those ventures, despite the absence of a real hole in the ground? But more importantly how might knowledge and reflexion of those myriad historical and situated practices inspire and inform horticultural therapy activities and interventions?

My questions may be of some concern to budding therapists and to veterans: it goes that as the profession grows so too should its therapists, in breadth and in length. Not only in terms of technical prowess  (continuing education units in “communication skills” or “terrarium building”) but also epistemologically.  Now that there is some road travel between the beginnings of the profession and 2015– a very hard look at the historical record of the profession, as a prelude for the testing of new heuristics can be both rewarding and necessary.


Fringe Gardening

Although HT as I have been trained, have experienced it and tend to practiced it (and even here, we concede that there are several valid approaches and preferences, or schools as researcher Stigsdottir points out in a very good synthesis in 2005) is indebted to the model of human occupation, my supported suspicion is that there are other expressions of the therapeutic process, let alone theoretical conceptual foundations, available to HTs for legitimate intentional exploration. In France, for example, where I am currently based, the Healing Garden Model reigns nearly unchallenged. The Jardin de Soin is the preferred appellation, suggesting the subordinate/nonexistant role of the trained therapist, with a unique therapeutic skill set. To this end, there is yet a great deal to be done here in terms of an educational offering. This cultural appellation underlines the fact of course that HT is not practiced in a societal vacuum. Their are other institutional, economic and cultural forces at work. I hope to address this difference by sharing my observations when possible from the point view of French garden history.

As for trends, elsewhere in the medical or paramedical fields, what can we learn from other holistic or adjuvant integrative therapies using various mediators (art, narrative, animals, the great outdoors)? And what about uses of metaphor, play, embodied intelligence, cognitive distribution, but also choreography of gesture, or narratives of self….to name a few. And speaking of “self”, how might the new forms of intervention appearing on the holistic spectrum (for example body-mind interventions) merit our attention as human service providers seeking to encourage our clients to discover their own alternate selves? After all, some of the new body-mind approaches, segue from eastern traditions, looking at “selves” askew, preferring to speak of the no-self?

If questions of identity are the daily bread of most therapists, rogerian non judgemental positive regard for clients being the prize, what make we of the politely framed conundrum of diversity. For low and behold, the post humanist turn is upon us. Once upon a time in a purely linguistic moment, somewhere between Judith Butler and Homii Bhaba, between critical gender theory and post-colonial theory, we learned to look to the diverse technologies of meaning-making and identity construction. But now we must contend with the post humanists and other animists who cheerlead for transpecieists and radical ecologists. Surely HT must remain attentive and responsive to intellectual, systemic or sociopolitical changes that include trends in the health care industry such as cultural competence or global concerns such as environmentalism?

I propose trying on such questions and others for size here in this blog. A sort of exercise in thinking out loud. It is my belief that as horticultural therapy rubs shoulders with other disciplines of various lineage (expressive or creative therapies, gestalt, jungian insight, sensory awareness, ecotherapy, ecopsychology, history, anthropology, medical humanities,  and botanical therapists, or ethnotherapists,  were they to exist might have another thing or two to add to the discussion)  we stand to gain more insight from intellectual promiscuity than by persistently excluding or ignoring theoretical or technical “outsiders”. Its not about diluting our wine, but mulling it. (Mulling spices activity anyone?)


A Composting of sorts

It follows that this space is meant to be a forum inviting comment and creative criticism, a sort of context for virtual peerage, peer-vision, and sharing.  The blog remains overwhelmingly and intentionally more academic than journalistic. In the library rather than in the field, as per my personal interests in research and theory. (However, my hope in the future is to curate, inviting others to articulate on similar content.)

I intend to present reviews of books, articles and websites, vent my personal hunches, and help myself along bibliographically, but also address meta historical or epistemological concerns to the extent that this may help reflect on practice. This does not preclude the humourous aside or excursion. I am not immune to a dash of well seasoned light farce or good theatrics. Creative and Inveterate upcyclers and recyclers, “Horde-it-cultural” therapists are guilty of collecting bits and pieces…since you never know when they might come in handy, so there will be space for odd bits and pieces, the flotsam of cultural pop-thought.

featured image is a photo of a Croton (Codiaeum) ‘revolution’

Next post in a month.

This blog is an individual venture, reflecting only the opinions and thoughts of the writer. On that note, it goes without saying that tolerant, appropriate intellectual discourse and commentary will be the expected norm.

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