Healing Power of Nature

University of Florida Teaching Horticulture Therapy


In this technologically driven world we live in now, where information moves at the speed of light and we often feel compelled to keep up or fall behind, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of modern life. 

We all have our struggles, and we work to cope with them in positive, healthy ways. The University of Florida has instituted an innovative new program to help provide people with some tools to alleviate stress and help manage various physical and mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). UF is now offering an Introduction to Horticultural Therapy course as a first step towards a certificate program in the subject. 

Horticultural therapy is one aspect of “nature-based therapy,” wherein participants make use of various aspects of the natural world for therapeutic purposes. This type of healing treatment is considered an alternative medicine in the U.S. and has a strong history in non-Western medical practice. The theory behind it is that throughout history, humans have been closely connected to the natural world. It was our home and provided us with all of our needs for many, many generations. Over time, however, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has grown increasingly estranged from our Arcadian roots. Some researchers and philosophers have suggested that this expanding rift between humans and nature is having detrimental effects on people’s physical and mental health.

Emily Fradet is a junior psychology major at the University of Florida who is excited by the Introduction to Horticultural Therapy course that debuted in this past fall’s online curriculum. Like many budding medical professionals, Fradet is interested in therapies currently outside the mainstream of Western medicine. She recognizes the value of gardening in her personal life as a way to help manage stress and anxiety, and knows that she isn’t alone in that assessment. Many nature-based therapies are increasing in popularity as people look for methods of dealing with stress, trauma, and other health issues that don’t involve drugs or invasive treatments. Nature-based therapies can be as immersive as “forest bathing,” which is a process of absorbing the ambiance of the forest through one’s senses, or as detached as just using nature-based imagery for relaxation.

Horticultural therapy involves the use of plants and gardening as a tool for participants to work toward their health goals or improve certain skills. Not only is it useful as stress management, it can help build and maintain physical skills, such as the motor skills that are so often ravaged in Parkinson’s disease patients. Research has shown that simply having plants around can make people feel better, and there is growing evidence that the process of caring for plants can benefit self-esteem. The positive impacts of horticultural therapy can be applied to a wide range of patients, including veterans struggling with PTSD, prisoners learning to be less aggressive, and corporate workers who need a way to relieve stress.

The introductory course will be the first in a series of four classes comprising the new horticultural therapy undergraduate certificate program at UF. The course of study will be administered by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The University has applied for the program to be accredited with the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). The certificate will be available to all UF students in addition to non-degree seeking students who want to add a credential to their workforce experience. There are currently no other fully online options for students to obtain a horticultural therapy certificate, and more than 100 people from around the globe have expressed interest in taking the courses.

UF is not simply creating a fresh program out of thin air, either. The school demonstrates its confidence in the merits of horticultural therapy by hosting weekly gatherings of veterans at Wilmot Botanical Gardens, a facility that is affiliated with the UF College of Medicine and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Gainesville. Leah Diehl has been the director of therapeutic horticulture at the Gardens for the past six years, working with a group of male veterans exhibiting a variety of health issues. 

Diehl testifies as to the effectiveness of the work, saying, “When I first started working with the gentlemen, there weren’t a lot of facial expressions that were happy, nor was there any talking. The longer we’ve worked with them, the more conversations and smiles we see.” 

UF/IFAS Florida Master Gardener and licensed clinical social worker Greg McGann met Diehl through their mutual involvement with the local HONOR Center for Veterans, which is an organization that provides homeless veterans with housing and healthcare. McGann was intrigued by Diehl’s gardening work with veterans, so he partnered with other Master Gardeners to renovate the veterans’ area to make it fully accessible to those using wheelchairs or walkers. 

“Many of the vets who join us had their own gardens or tended the gardens of parents or grandparents,” McGann describes, “so returning to the soil often seems to have an immediate calming effect.” 

The horticultural therapy program at Wilmot Botanical Gardens is thriving. One of Diehl’s future goals for the garden is to begin using tower gardens. Tower gardens can increase a garden’s production by utilizing vertical space and aeroponics, or the use of water and nutrients without dirt. Diehl says of the veterans, “They love to build stuff and come up with solutions. It’s something new and innovative, which is what they like.” Maintaining and expanding the garden is helping the veterans recover from physical and mental trauma while building connections within the community. The project is so effective that other VA clinics are beginning to take note and institute gardening programs with their own patients. 


If you are a veteran, or you know a veteran, who is interested in joining the therapeutic horticulture group at the Wilmot Botanical Gardens, or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer there, you can find all the information you need by scanning this QR code:  

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