In the classic Hawaiian gardener’s book, Tropical Organic Gardening: Hawaiian Style author Richard Stevens famously wrote, “The art of gardening and the art of living come together in the organic garden.” For parents with a teenager in crisis, the concept of sending a child away to live and work in a therapeutic gardening program with the hope of discovering their own “art of living” might sound like wishful thinking. Indeed, the notion that gardening could save a child’s life is a bold statement and not without critics. However, this is the same skepticism that wilderness and adventure therapy programs have faced for decades, and yet these types of nature-based therapy programs continue to dominate the outdoor behavioral health care industry with estimated revenues of over $200 million per year in the United States (OBHIC Technical Report #26, 2000). Organized in 1997, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC) describes itself as “a community of leading outdoor behavioral healthcare programs working to advance the field through best practices, effective treatment, and evidence-based research.” OBHIC consists primarily of outdoor wilderness treatment programs with many of the organizations seeking new ways to broaden their approach to nature-based therapy, becoming more clinically sophisticated, and reaching an increasingly diverse client population. This is where horticultural therapy has the potential to be a game changer in the outdoor behavioral healthcare industry.
The evolution of wilderness therapy and horticultural therapy (HT) share a similar story of learning about one’s self from nature. Most wilderness therapy programs rely on indigenous skills, not just for survival but for creating meaning, often through the archetypes of nomadic people. Whereas the nomad and survivalist learn by confronting nature as an adversary, the sustainable farmer learns by working with nature as a teacher.
Digging in the soil and planting seeds that bear fruit for future generations was once a sacred responsibility that brought families and communities together for a common purpose. By utilizing the indigenous knowledge and archetypes of the sustainable gardener and ancient agriculturalist, horticultural therapy practitioners have the potential to play a key role in providing a more holistic and nurturing approach to traditional wilderness therapy. Furthermore, deepening the awareness of the plant- person relationship can lead to more powerful therapeutic benefits. Thus, HT and wilderness therapy practitioners stand to improve the quality of care, increase the crossover of ideas in nature-based therapies, and inevitably reach more clients in need of innovative treatment.
There is growing evidence that suggests outdoor therapy programs that incorporate therapeutic horticulture activities for struggling teens can meet the same treatment outcomes as a traditional hiking program without the risk. Mental health practitioners working with struggling teens often witness the dilemma described by David Whyte, who said, “We are the only species that can refuse our own flowering.” Horticultural therapists are uniquely positioned to impart the skills and insight to understand why young people refuse their own potential. Bringing innovation and fresh perspective to traditional outdoor treatment, horticultural therapy practitioners can make a significant impact on the future of outdoor therapy, allowing clients to experience the wildness of nature and the mysteries of life through the patchwork of relationships and interconnections in a garden.
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative- University of New Hampshire https://www.obhrc.org/index
National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs https://natsap.org/
Outdoor Behavior Healthcare Industry Council https://obhic.com/about.html
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Commission (2000). Technical Report #26. Retrieved November 25, 2012 from https://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/wrc/Pdf/OBHPublication.pdf