Friendship Really Matters: What is therapeutic and positive about gardening? Two horticultural therapists share their view

emma-browning-tagLivability’s horticultural therapy programme ‘Flourish’ at Livability Holton Lee sees remarkable change in how people relate to each other. But why does this kind of therapy help to connect people? Our experts Dr Anna Sweeney and Emma Browning share their insights.

Flourish works with people with a huge range of needs – disabilities, personality disorders, addictions. Why do you think horticultural therapy benefits so many?

Emma: Gardening is a great leveller because everybody can get involved in some part of the process. Some like to work their muscles and break into a sweat, others are fascinated by the methodologies of planting and growing. The success of Flourish is absolutely because different people come together. Often we connect with people who are like us, which can mean focusing on the same issues and problems and getting trapped.

What role does the therapist play?

Anna: Getting to know people is very important so my and other staff’s relationship with service users is key to start with. As the person settles in, we’re there to facilitate, to assist with conversation because that is part of horticultural therapy, and if we know people have a shared interest, to encourage them to explore that. And it’s our task to make sure that the activities, the tools and the settings are adapted to suit each individual’s needs.

"Being outside is good for us" - Anna

“Being outside is good for us” – Emma

Is there something intrinsically therapeutic and positive about gardening?

Emma: Being outside is good for us; there’s stacks of research that says it naturally lowers your blood pressure and releases your feelgood endorphins because we’re designed to be outdoor creatures, plus we’re sharing it with other people.

Anna: The garden setting is a way of starting to develop a relationship with living things. The theory of biophilia is all about how humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Nature doesn’t demand anything from you, and working with nature enables recovery from mental fatigue and reduces stress. It provides a meaningful, purposeful activity – here we’re contributing to a market garden – and it stimulates. All these factors boost people’s confidence and self-esteem, and when you feel you’re worth something, you can make friends more readily.

Do you think being physically together is an important part of therapy?

Emma: Obviously online communities and connections are valuable for all sorts of reasons, but I think actually saying to someone else ‘Would you like help with that? Shall we do this together?’ and seeing their face, knowing you’ve made a real connection with real people gives a sense of meaning and purpose. You know you’re part of a community where people are genuinely interested in your well being. You’re sharing success, you’re sharing accomplishments, which is so much more powerful than sending a Facebook message.’

Watch a film about the Flourish project, made by the people who take part

Can you help connect people this Christmas?

Our work to help connect people with their community is only possible thanks to the friendship of our supporters. This Christmas, your support could help with:

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Supporting people recover from mental health illness by taking part in Flourish – our horticultural therapy programme at Livability’s wellbeing centre.
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Enabling disabled people express their creativity and build friendships through art classes and community programmes.
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Coaching people facing barriers to employment in setting up their own business.

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