Goodness of gardening

By Palita Punchibandara Subasinghe

Those of us who are gardeners are fully aware of the many benefits of working with plants. Through gardening, those who lead stressful lives and those with disabilities can experience a greater sense of competence, enhance sensory stimulation, improve movement skills and find occasions for self-expression, creativity and socialization.

The gardening project mooted by the students of Royal College, Colombo at the Mental Institute is reported be of immense therapeutic benefit to the inmates. The hospital authorities and the staff and students of Royal College have introduced, perhaps for the first time in Sri Lanka, the concepts of horticultural therapy, that have been gaining acceptance worldwide for many decades.

The therapeutic benefits of peaceful garden environments have been understood since ancient times. In ancient Egypt, court physicians prescribed walks in palace gardens for royalty who were mentally disturbed. Therapeutic benefits from horticultural activities may have been known even earlier than this as evidenced by the prominence given to the establishment of great royal gardens all over the world including in Sri Lanka.

The first historic record of the use of horticulture as a therapy was perhaps incidental. Around 1600, poor people who couldn’t pay their hospital bills had to work in the gardens to pay them. 

It was noticed that these patients as well as those who had a view of the gardens recovered quicker than other patients who had no contact with gardens. After both World War I and II, servicemen were made to work in gardens to improve use of their injured limbs, increase mental function and learn new skills.
The use of horticulture for treatment in mental institutions can be found towards the late 1700s and early 1800s. Throughout the early 1900s, the use of horticulture as therapy expanded to other groups such as the physically handicapped and war veterans.

In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence and considered to be the “Father of American Psychiatry,” reported that garden settings held curative effects for people with mental illness. Later on, the 1950s and 1960s saw the beginnings of recognizing horticultural therapy as a profession and the need for formally trained horticultural therapists.

Horticultural Therapy (HT) as a profession traces its roots to what is now the Friends Hospital in Philadelphia USA. In the 1880’s, the first greenhouse for use in treatment of the mentally ill was built there and in the early 1900’s, the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, implemented the use of gardening in treating those with mental illnesses. 

Today, HT is recognized as a practical and viable treatment with wide-ranging benefits for people in therapeutic, vocational, and wellness programmes. In the US, the American Horticultural Therapy Association was formed for the promotion of horticultural therapy (HT) and the profession of horticultural therapist. The American Horticulture Therapy Association (AHTA) defines horticulture therapy as, “a process utilizing plants and horticultural activities to improve social, educational, psychological and physical adjustment of persons thus improving their body, mind and spirit”. Many universities around the world have begun degree/diploma programmes in HT.

Now horticulture therapy is used in hospitals, nursing homes, institutions, rehabilitation facilities, schools, prisons, day care centres, halfway homes, community centres etc. People of any age can get involved and activities can be varied according to abilities. Work areas can be at different levels to accommodate those who are in wheelchairs or unable to bend.

As an additional benefit, horticulture therapy improves the overall well being of not only patients, but also the caretakers and families of patients. Gardening may be playing an important role in the activities planned for our brave solders who are undergoing rehabilitation at the many excellent centres established by the government.

Even when not used directly as a form of therapy, garden settings have been proved to have remarkable impacts on human health. Researchers in the US and elsewhere have found that visiting a botanical garden lowers blood pressure and reduces heart rate. Other studies by Kaplan, Ulrich and fellow workers show that the presence of vegetation will speed recovery from stress. Different studies show that activities like gardening are associated with health and reduce risk factors for coronary heart disease. Could this be the reason for the hundreds of visitors, perhaps driven by instinct, flocking to the plant shows that used to be held at the Vihara Maha Devi Park almost every weekend?

A study carried out by the American scientists Virginia I. Lohr and Caroline H. Pearson-Mims from the Departments of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture of the Washington State University proves that just looking at trees has a positive effect on people. The aim of the study was to compare the psychological and physiological perceptions of urban scenery with trees with non-living objects.

The participants showed more positive emotions, such as happiness, friendliness and assertiveness, and less negative emotions, such as sadness, fear and annoyance, whilst looking at the urban scenery with trees. This is a good point for our town planners to follow in new town beautification programmes as we do not see due prominence being given to planting trees. This is clearly evident in the case of the Baseline Road.

(The writer is Vice President/ Hony. Editor, Horticultural & Flora Conservation Society-Sri Lanka)

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