Healing Through Garden Therapy

Garden therapy has become a tool for learning, coping and healing for this Wisconsin woman living with cognitive disabilities.

Julie Graf loves to garden. It’s an escape from everyday stress, a break from the daily grind, a retreat right in her own backyard. It’s also therapy.

Julie, 45, is a participant in Green Works, a therapeutic horticulture program, in Racine County, Wisconsin. As an adult living with cognitive disabilities, she finds that gardening gives her independence, job opportunities and a hobby she’s passionate about. Those who know her will tell you that this is the perfect outlet for her. Julie herself, with no hint of shyness in her voice, is quick to give gardening advice.

“Make sure to weed your garden,” she says, “because if you don’t, (the weeds) will take over and then you won’t have anything that will grow.”

When she’s not working at her part-time job at Burger King, Julie can often be found in the garden of the house she shares with her parents. She loves growing peppers, which she gives to cousins who make chili and salsa. She especially likes spring, when she plants the first seeds of the season.

Julie has been with the program for several years at the behest of her sister, Theresa Odell, who is a huge advocate of the program.

“It gives Julie something additional to do with her life,” says their mother, Jan Graf. “She really likes gardening, and she’s constantly buying seeds and plants. It’s given her a great outlet and allows her to express herself.”

A Time-Tested Practice

Healing Through Garden TherapyKevin J. Miyazaki
Kevin J. Miyazaki Julie and her mother, Jan, enjoy a break from gardening at their home in Wisconsin.

Julie is just one of many to discover the benefits and joys of horticulture therapy. The American Horticultural Therapy Association notes that the therapeutic potential of gardens has been recognized since ancient times. In the U.S., 19th-century physician Benjamin Rush, one of the pioneers of American psychiatry, was the first to document the positive effects of gardening on individuals with mental illness.

It wasn’t until 1973 that horticultural therapy became a recognized profession, and it’s still relatively unknown to many people. Christine Kramer, program manager of the Denver-based Horticultural Therapy Institute, calls the practice one of the best-kept secrets in health care.

“There’s been a lot of research and interest in sustainability, getting back to the earth and bringing people and plants together in a more meaningful way,” she says. “When you bring therapy (techniques) to the garden with a trained professional, it becomes much more meaningful than just getting your hands in the dirt.”

Therapy Programs

One of the advantages of horticultural therapy is its adaptability to each participant’s needs. A patient recovering from a stroke, for example, might stand outside next to a raised garden bed and work on watering the plants to increase stamina. A participant who needs help with range of motion might simply be picking tomatoes off a vine.

Different programs have different goals, though they’re not mutually exclusive. A therapeutic model is designed to help participants get back lost or impaired skills, while a vocational model teaches job skills. A social model helps to engage participants with one another and provides them with a recreational outlet in the community.

Wisconsin’s Green Works, in which Julie participates, educates, trains and assists in integrated employment support for adults with disabilities. It combines all three models, aiming to connect people with jobs while also helping them to overcome their disabilities and build community with one another.

“We’re not just teaching plant science or how to care for plants,” says Patti Nagai, horticulture educator for the University of Wisconsin-Extension, who oversees the program. “We’re also giving adults with disabilities the opportunity to get into the public and do something productive.”

Horticultural therapists recognize that there’s an innate connection between people and plants. It’s a bond that has helped Julie to grow right along with her garden.


Therapy gardens have specific requirements, but their general principles can serve as inspiration for a healing garden of your own. Consider some of these ideas to create your personal escape.

1. Provide comfortable seating for a quiet place to sit and contemplate.

2. Make sure shade is available by adding screens, trellises or large plants.

3. Create a water feature. Still water provides a setting for meditation, while the sound and sight of moving water can be restorative.

4. Add a splash of color to your garden, which will provide a visual stimulus. Warm colors enliven the emotions and promote activity, while cool colors tend to be soothing.

5. Engage your sense of smell by adding fragrant plants alongside garden seating and paths.

6. Add texture to your garden by choosing plants that are durable enough to withstand frequent brushing or handling.

7. Sound expands the garden experience. Cultivate plants that rustle in even a light breeze.

Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki