VINCENNES, Ind. – Digging in the dirt while gardening can be
therapy. People putting their hands in the soil or spending time in
nature can provide opportunities to connect with others, boost
relationship satisfaction, help manage stress, lessen emotional
reactivity, and many other healing powers that can transform lives.
Vincennes University is offering a fresh new course that will explore
Therapeutic Horticulture in fall 2020.
Jennifer Nettles, VU Professor
"Not only can plants benefit from the microorganisms in the
soil, but so can we. Research has shown that putting your hands in
soil triggers the release of serotonin in the brain," VU
Horticulture/Agriculture Coordinator Jennifer Nettles said.
Horticulture is the art and science of growing flowers, trees,
fruits, vegetables, and other types of plants. A therapeutic garden is
a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate
interaction with the healing elements of nature. Therapeutic
horticulture has the potential to enhance positive human growth and
“There are very few universities that offer courses in this,” said
Nettles, who will teach the Therapeutic Horticulture course. “That’s
one of the reasons I thought we should bring this course to VU and see
how it goes.”
By understanding how important plants are in our daily lives,
students can appreciate plant characteristics and requirements to
create successful therapeutic gardens. During the semester, students
will do a deep dive into the use of gardens in prisons and how they
affect the mental and emotional states of inmates.
In this era of social distancing, spending time in a garden has
become a popular method to improve well-being. For example, gardens
have become a place of respite for healthcare workers as they battle
the coronavirus. Frontline medical workers are spending time in the
tranquility of the gardens located on hospital grounds to refresh
their spirits, bodies, and minds. Others are planting and tending
gardens as a way of encouraging feelings of comfort and happiness.
The subject of healing through plants and gardening is very personal
to recent VU horticulture graduate Charles Roberts, who currently
works as an intern at Garfield Park Conservatory in Indianapolis.
Charles Roberts, VU Graduate
“Before I got into horticulture, I was very depressed and bullied in
middle school. I spent a weekend at my grandma’s and she had me in the
garden. Being in the garden surrounded by nature helping to help
plants grow and seeing all the life that is in the world, it really
changed a lot for me,” he said.
Horticultural therapy is employed for a wide range of therapeutic options.
According to the American
Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural
therapy/gardening helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task
initiation, language skills, and socialization. In physical
rehabilitation, horticultural therapy can help strengthen muscles and
improve coordination, balance, and endurance. In vocational
horticultural therapy settings, people learn to work independently,
problem-solve, and follow directions.
“If someone has a disability like being blind or something like that,
they really can’t see flowers, but they can feel the different
textures of different plants, which is safe for them, and they can
feel more connected to gardening,” said Roberts, who is from Indianapolis.
The impetus behind VU’s course is a current student who is a
horticulture major. Autumn Lewis has an interest in horticultural
therapy. She approached Nettles about the subject and Nettles went
about making the class happen.
Autumn Lewis, VU Student
“I have been aware that horticultural therapy is a thing. I know VU
had a good horticulture program, but I figured something could be
added to it. So kids like me could benefit,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who is from Dayton, Tennessee, grew up living with an aunt
with Down Syndrome and has first-hand knowledge of the benefits of
“My aunt was always scared to go out in the garden, but I started
container gardens with her on the back porch and she loved it,” Lewis
said. “She could see her efforts were being processed in a real-life
way. That’s when I first started to see how cognitively that can grow
with someone. I got to watch her grow a little bit as I got to watch
some of the plants grow.”
Lewis is excited about taking the course and she is fascinated with
the many populations that can benefit from therapeutic gardening,
including children, the elderly, and individuals struggling with addiction.
“It’s just like music therapy or art therapy,” she said. “It can help
relieve stress. It’s calming. I’ve always gone to gardening and those
are some of my earliest memories.”