Social & Therapeutic Horticulture (STH), and what are the benefits?

By: Edith Gordon Association for Social Therapeutic Horticulture Facilitators of Ireland January 2023

“Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos because he is no longer involved in nature
and has lost his emotional unconscious identity with natural phenomena… No voices
now speak to man from stones, plants and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.”
Quote by Carl Gustav Jung(1964) from Man and his Symbols

As our world is recovering from the experience of the pandemic and how it has impacted
all of our lives, we are looking for new ways to support this recovery process. Each
individual will also come across their personal major life events that will affect them, and
we are seeing this, especially now with our young people. The levels of stress and anxiety
being experienced can be overwhelming, and this is where Social Therapeutic
Horticulture is well-placed to address the needs of these individuals and groups.
Gardening can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, provide an outlet for physical
aggression and frustration, and build self-esteem by nurturing plants. Certain bacteria in
the soil are known for triggering the release of serotonin which in turn improves mood
and possibly even brain function. This means that contact with soil through play,
gardening and STH is beneficial.

What is Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH)
Social and therapeutic horticulture is the process of using gardens, allotments, plants
and plant materials within a particular method to improve mental and physical health. It
will enable participants to understand themselves, achieve goals, and connect and
engage with others and the environment. It will also stimulate feelings of safety, being
valued and having a sense of belonging. The goal of Social Therapeutic Horticulture is to
maximise social, cognitive, physical and mental well-being. In Social Therapeutic
Horticulture activities, the participants will work and connect through the medium of
nature, plants and plant material. By using all their available senses, the participants will
become more aware of nature in connection to themselves and their environment,
regardless of their age, abilities and life phase.

Social Therapeutic Horticulture facilitators see firsthand how gardening, working with
plants and experiencing the rhythm of the seasons benefit individuals and groups
working with various Social Therapeutic Horticulture programmes. Nature is a perfect
environment to engage with one’s senses and experience the flow of nature’s lifecycle.
By exploring the natural environment, you can see, feel, hear, smell and even taste the elements that nature provides. People can relate to their own life when looking at the lifecycle that nature represents. Nature is an excellent metaphor for themes like
meaning, loss, growth, change, resilience, communication, connecting, transformation,
hope, and much more.

Some quotes from clients
“Caring for plants in the allotment makes me reflect on my own needs and self-care.”

“It is easier talking to the plants than talking to people.”

“When the going gets tough, I put the tough in the garden.”

“Gardening is opening me up.”

The origin of STH
Social Therapeutic Horticulture has sprouted from the field of Ecopsychology, the study
of the connection between humans and nature and the field of Ecotherapy, the methodology used to heal clients through the process of reconnecting and integrating with nature and the natural environment, where the needs of the plant and the human as seen as a continuum (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009; Roszak, 2001).
Social Therapeutic Horticulture emphasises the healing power of (re)connecting with nature to improve mental and physical health. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening was used as therapy for World War II veterans who had to be hospitalised, which increased the acceptance of gardening as therapeutic for a myriad of illnesses and physical ailments.

The benefits and two example programmes
According to Wilsons(1984), our connection and interaction with the natural world will
positively affect us as human beings. The affinity between humans and other life forms
and the natural environment has always underpinned our drive to survive, overcome
stress and remain mentally and physically stable.
Evidence shows that spending time in nature, as little as 10 minutes a day, improves one’s
mood and well-being (Frumkin et al., 2017; Louv, 2012).
“Hey Warrior” programme.
This programme is written for children who come into care or any child or young
adult that is experiencing any form of anxiety. It is a programme for six weeks for
one hour at a time. It starts with reading the story “Hey Warrior” by Karen Young.
After that, the children will explore the garden space to find a plant, flower or small animal that they can identify with. From here, they are invited to draw what they have chosen. The different sessions will allow the children to breathe and enjoy the outdoor space, get to know each other and start to trust the facilitator. Over the course of the programme, the children will learn about different feelings/emotions and some coping skills in dealing with their sense of anxiety.

“Keyhole Garden” programme.
This programme is written for any group of people over the growing season. They
will build and maintain a low-maintenance and self-feeding food-growing system
known as a keyhole garden. After the plants are fully grown, it is time to harvest
and enjoy the food.

Through the different activities from designing, building, planting, growing and
harvesting, the participants will apply knowledge, skills and attitudes that will
enable them to understand themselves, achieve goals, to connect and engage with
others and the environment. It will also stimulate their feelings of safety, being
valued and having a sense of belonging.

The Social Therapeutic Horticulture Facilitator/Therapist in the here and now
Many Social Therapeutic Horticulture Facilitators/Therapists working on STH projects
have completed specialist training programmes in social and therapeutic horticulture.
They may also hold other professional qualifications in horticulture, health and social
care, teaching, occupational therapy or nursing. The Social Therapeutic Horticulture
programmes are designed to support individuals and groups in the growing process to
achieve their full potential. The STH programmes can be categorised into three types:
Vocational, Therapeutic and Social (Haller, 1998). For each programme, the STH
Facilitator will work closely with the organisation in question to plan and implement an
appropriate and effective programme for the participant(s).

Social Therapeutic Horticulture programmes are suitable for a variety of settings,
including hospitals, (mental) healthcare facilities, nursing homes, residential homes,
daycare centres, rehabilitation centres, assisted living communities, social or care
farming, correctional institutions, schools, vocational training centres, community centres
and community gardens. Using gardening tasks, other horticulture activities and
experiencing the natural environment, the Social Therapeutic Horticulture facilitator/
therapist builds a set of activities for each participant to improve their particular health
needs and work on specific goals they want to achieve.

The Association of Social Therapeutic Horticulture of Ireland
As humans have always had a personal relationship with the natural world, we at ASTHFI
value that relationship and use it as an essential tool to restore and enhance positive
mental health, recognising each person’s ability to heal from within. Each facilitator that is a member of our association is trained to write a programme to suit the needs of the individual or group with whom they are working. Such as Nursing home residents, dementia patients, recovering addicts, people in rehabilitation, people with physical, mental, intellectual and developmental disabling conditions, veterans, foster children and foster carers, primary and secondary school students, children and adults who experience the world differently. Our members are experienced and aware of each individual’s different abilities and needs within their specific environment and adhere to “Children First Guidance and Legislation”.

If you want to know more about Social Therapeutic Horticulture, or if you wish for
contact details of a Social Therapeutic Horticulture Facilitator in your area.
You can contact our Association via the following email:

ASTHFI – The Association of Social Therapeutic Horticulture Facilitators of Ireland was formed in March 2022 and will hold its second seminar in McAuley Place in Nass, Kildare on the 25th of March 2023 and will formally launch itself open to new members.
The association has been recognised as a relevant organisation, and as such registered members can gain garda vetting through our association, which would be required to work in certain areas. The association will also provide members with information on training and working in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture.
Seminar: Social Therapeutic Horticulture in Ireland: Spring 2023 Action
One-day national seminar for developing social and therapeutic horticulture actions and solutions in Ireland.
Date: 25th of March 2023
Time: 10:00 – 16:00 GMT
Where: McAuley Place, Sallins Road, W91 D62E, Naas
To Book click here.