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Horticultural therapy is real

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Q. My grandmother used to tell me that working in her garden gave her a kind of “spiritual, peaceful” feeling. I’ve read some on horticultural therapy recently, and I’m wondering – is there something to this?

Lorraine from Boardman

A. I feel the same calm and peace that your grandmother described to you when I am working in my garden. There have been studies at Kansas State University by Dr. Richard Mattson for more than 40 years that document those calm and peaceful feelings while gardening. The study is called “Horticultural Therapy,” and according to Dr. Mattson’s findings, adults with ailments ranging from depression to high blood pressure to chronic pain can be improved by working with plants or being in a plant environment.

For example, Mattson and other researchers have found that merely walking in an arboretum can reduce blood pressure in those afflicted. His student, Seong Hyun Park, documented that placing flowers or houseplants in a hospital room can help patients cope with pain. And, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a 2013 study called “Harvest for Health” used Horticultural Therapy with 100 breast cancer survivors. In this study, master gardener volunteers visited the survivors twice a month for one year, offering advice, expertise and suggestions for their home gardens. The study showed that almost all the survivors showed improvements in strength, agility and endurance just by working in their gardens.

Spending time in an oxygen-rich environment (gardening, parks, arboretums) has been acknowledged for centuries to be valuable to human health. Science is beginning to measure these results and recognize horticultural therapy’s value as an alternate healing treatment. In Japan, Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall, they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. And in Sweden, the physician Matilda van den Bosch found that after a stressful math task, subjects’ heart rate variability – which decreases with stress – returned to normal more quickly when they sat through 15 minutes of nature scenes and birdsong in a 3-D virtual reality room than when they sat in a plain room.

As for me, I don’t really need to take my blood pressure before and after I garden. I, like your grandmother, always walk into my garden with a smile and immediately feel the effect.

For further study of horticultural therapy, see http://go.osu.edu/horttherapy

Today’s answer is by Lillian Quaranta, OSU Extension master gardener volunteer. Winter hours for the Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic vary. Submit questions to the clinic at 330-533-5538 or drop samples off to the OSU Extension Office in Canfield.