Gardening uses all five senses, part of what it makes it excellent therapy. Silvia Moraleja/Shutterstock

Whenever I step outside to our garden to plant, harvest or weed, I feel better  – especially if I’ve been spending too much time paying attention to current events.

Gardening is therapeutic, and I love it.

Horticultural therapy is more than a feeling, though. It is directed time with plants with a specific goal.

Colleen Griffin, a Portland resident, is one of 11 Registered Horticultural Therapists in Maine. According to her, Maine is among the states where the field is growing fastest.

“Horticultural therapy is adaptable and can be modified to just about any situation,” Griffin said in a telephone interview.

It can help people recovering from long illnesses such as cancer, medical events such as strokes or heart attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Before she ever heads out into the garden with a client, she formulates a plan.

“Often it involves fine motor skills and a sequencing of steps,” she said. “They put soil in a pot, add seeds, add more soil, and then water. All of those steps use certain, different muscles.”

But horticultural therapy can also help the mental health of clients. Experts believe that the United States is suffering from a mental health crisis. Griffin thinks technology bears some of the blame. It’s not good for people to spend so much time online, staring at a computer screen, she said, adding that merely getting people outside with a specific task can make them feel better.

She has helped develop an accessible community garden in Auburn and has led programs at the Dempsey Center in both Lewiston and South Portland in which she planted houseplants with cancer patients. One patient told Collins that the program gave her 90 happy minutes in which she didn’t think about her illness.

“And that was because all five of their senses were involved in something else,” Griffin said.

She has also conducted classes for students in the greenhouse program at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish. One student stood out. He had problems at home and in school, but in the greenhouse, he grew food to take home and was always focused.


“Special needs kids are often viewed as takers, not givers, but at the end, he had something to take home to his family, and that was important,” she said.

Horticultural therapy can help veterans suffering from PTSD, too. In typical mental health sessions, veterans may find it stressful to talk about their problems. But if the same veterans are weeding a garden, say, the conversation can more easily flow, even to uncomfortable topics.

Horticultural therapy needn’t be limited to overcoming specific illnesses or health problems, however. Gardening can make just about anybody feel better. To that end, Griffin conducted two horticultural therapy programs this spring at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. While they weren’t well attended, she plans to try again.

“You go to a particular location and focus on the sense of hearing and peel away all of the man-made sounds and notice the sounds made by the wind rustling leaves, the birds singing, the chirping of the chipmunks,” she said.

Since Griffin’s work amounts to scientific medical treatments, and I like to garden when I am under stress, am I self-medicating, I asked her.

‘“Yes, but in a good way,” she replied, noting that the term “self-medication” typically applies to things like drugs or alcohol and often has negative connotations.

Horticultural therapy works because plants are non-threatening, she said, and they respond to your care. You weed, fertilize, deadhead and much more, and in return, the plants thrive. A garden is the result of a long-term relationship that benefits both the garden and the gardener.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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