By Leigh McGaghey
Green puns abound when talking about the growth and spread of therapeutic horticulture in Australia. But growing it is, with people from the allied health and community services world branching into horticulture, gaining horticultural qualifications and spreading the benefits of nurturing plants to their clients.
Therapeutic horticulture (TH) has a noble, but until relatively recently, quiet history in Australia. Originating in rehabilitation settings, occupational and diversional therapists collaborated with horticulturists to bring plant nurture programs to patients to aid their physical and psychological recovery. TH practitioners also designed and delivered vocational programs in prisons and community organisations, and for people living with a disability.
Practitioners of TH formed State-based member organisations whilst TAFEs, private training organisations and some universities ran short courses in TH. However, the duality of the skill base, the need for both health and horticulture qualifications, and experience, slowed the expansion of this cross-discipline occupation in Australia. By comparison, the UK and North America developed the occupation and TH service sector extensively, and have accredited qualifications, professional registrations, influential member associations and a well-recognised imprint in the landscape and horticulture industries.
Therapeutic horticulture in Australia is now rapidly gaining ground with the establishment in 2017 of a national body, Therapeutic Horticulture Australia, which represents a quickly growing member base and fosters connections across the health, social, community, education and business sectors. A trend towards tertiary qualified allied health professionals gaining secondary qualifications in horticulture, permaculture and landscape design, has forged a new cohort of practitioners relying on products and services from the horticultural industry – from greenlife to mulch, from propagation materials to gardening tools and planter boxes, together with adjunct services from landscape designers and contractors.
A day in the life of a horticultural therapist might see them evaluating an aged care facility to determine the best type of raised planter beds for residents to use, to helping school children select seeds and seedlings for their school kitchen garden, to overseeing the ordering and deployment of soil and mulches at a council-funded community garden. The day may well end with them spending time with a private NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) client and that client’s allied health team in devising a personalised gardening program for the client to enjoy at home.
Importantly, these practitioners are becoming instrumental in helping hospitals, schools, community, charitable and NDIS organisations apply for government funding and grants to develop their own gardens and gardening programs. Their expertise in providing evidence-based research of the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening to support grant applications is pivotal in their clients’ funding application success. Typical of this type of involvement was a recent contract for a large Sydney public hospital. The hospital was addressing its requirement to provide a wellness strategy for its mental health nurses in the psychiatric ward. A horticultural therapist was commissioned to propose how an existing under-utilised courtyard could be re-purposed as a both a respite garden and a venue to carry out a TH program. The horticultural therapist was able to provide the research evidence that confirms gardening for its mental health benefits and contributed to a cost-benefit analysis that firmly supported the funding application. A win-win for the hospital, its nursing staff, its patients and suppliers from the horticulture industry.
In August 2022 Worksafe Australia published the Model Code of Practice in Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work,requiringall States and Territories to embed the Code in their own WHS legislation. Specific onus is now being placed on workplaces to support the psychological wellbeing of their employees. To this end, organisations are turning to the skills of horticultural therapists to provide plant (pot plants/terrariums) workshops, vegetable and herb beds for employees to nurture at the workplace, and knowledge and skills to continue plant nurturing activities at home.
This significant shift in legislation represents an opportunity for the wider horticultural industry to tap into and support workplaces and their employees by promoting the mental health benefits of nurturing plants – a readily scalable, adaptable and achievable wellbeing activity. Further opportunities are on the horizon, with research at Southern Cross University into Nature Prescribing (literally ‘green’ scripts written by doctors) advocating the many health benefits of gardening. This is already a reality in the UK; hopefully, before long, doctors in Australia will be referring patients to their local garden ‘clinic’, for a healthy dose of Vitamin G.
Leigh McGaghey is a Sydney-based landscape architect with qualifications in health and diversional therapy. She works with psychologists and other allied health professionals in the design and delivery of horticultural therapy programs. Leigh is Vice President of Therapeutic Horticulture Australia.
Main photo: Therapeutic horticulture workshop – creating terrariums (Image: Roman Klesper, Pixabay)