AHS Award Winner Catharine McCord Describes the Power of Horticultural Therapy
COVID-19, and its accompanying stay-at-home orders, self-quarantine measures, and breakdown in food supply chains, has given rise to a new cohort of home gardeners. While gardening fits the bill as productive domestic activity that will, in the coming months, yield edible results, are there other benefits to digging in the soil and nurturing plants? Horticultural therapists across the country sound a resounding “Yes!” and Catharine McCord, recipient of the AHS’ 2020 Horticultural Therapy Award adds her voice to the chorus. Read on as Catharine answers our questions and describes the myriad mental and physical health benefits to gardening.
In your words, what is horticultural therapy?
Horticultural therapy is the practice of using plant-based activities, where participating in the activity itself is considered therapeutic. At Denver Botanic Gardens, we focus on social and emotional enrichment through active or passive involvement with our activities. We design our programs with a focus on promoting socialization and stimulating memory recall.
This field is founded on connecting people to themselves through plants, but it is also important to note that we can connect with each other through plants. We all have stories that can be shared through interacting with plants and talking about plants with others. The more we share our stories and hear others tell their stories, the more we connect to each other and feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. The more we feel part of something bigger than ourselves, the bigger the difference we can make.
Generally, how can plants and gardens contribute to positive mental health during this time of anxiety, grief, and social distancing?
This is no doubt an unprecedented and stressful time in our lives and we are all looking for healthy coping mechanisms and ways to process what’s happening in our world. Passive interactions (just simply being) in a garden can restore our ability to focus and assess how we’re feeling physically and emotionally. Studies indicate that spending just ten minutes in a garden can improve our moods and reduce blood pressure. When we actively nurture our plants, we can also take notice of how we tend to our needs and ourselves. Research shows that physical activity, like weeding and digging in the soil, helps to activate parts of our brain to process our thoughts, feelings, and emotions effectively.
Your Therapeutic Thursday webinars with the Denver Botanic Gardens focus on certain plant groups – trees, thorny plants, and aquatic plants. What are the therapeutic lessons inherent in these particular plants?
We can look to plants as guides in how to adapt to our surroundings and situations. In forests, trees communicate their needs through their roots and respond to each other by sending nutrients and other resources. This vast underground network of connectivity is similar to our social networks and helps us to remember that we are not alone right now; we can reach out and be seen and heard and connect with so many others.
Thorny plants like those in the rose family teach us about setting boundaries and to take care of ourselves and protect our hearts and what we hold dear. They remind us to be kind to ourselves and take time to give ourselves the love and support we often give to others as caretakers, but don’t necessarily give to ourselves.
Grief, suffering, and resiliency are inherent in all of our lives, but for many are uncomfortable to talk about. When we look at the beauty and delicate nature of a water lily, it’s easy to overlook its humble beginnings. As other aquatic plants, emerging through murky and muddy waters, while seemingly less-than-ideal conditions, these are essential to producing the beautiful blooms.
What advice would you give to the parents or caregivers of children who are struggling with the “new normal”?
If you and your children are having trouble focusing on schoolwork or any other indoor tasks, take a break to look out a window or go outside and allow your senses to explore. Move around outside with your whole body and make some loud noises. Take walks, jump around, be playful! Unstructured time outdoors will help your mind to refocus when necessary.
Try planting seeds together! Basil grows well on a sunny windowsill. By growing a plant from seed you are making a plan for the future and that is one of the most hopeful activities you can do. Nurturing a plant teaches us life lessons about patience, anticipation, and delayed gratification. Harvesting the basil to prepare a meal together can cultivate a sense of connection. Just rubbing basil leaves and smelling the oils that are released help us to slow down and feel calm. This simple act of breathing and noticing our senses can help us to regulate or uplift our moods. Something fun about plants in mint family like basil, lavender, and rosemary, is that their stems will feel square between your fingers.
Gardening is often an individual activity that contributes to self-care and self-sufficiency. What can a home gardener do at this time to support a collective effort or assist others in need?
Sharing in any capacity promotes connectivity. Share seedlings with friends and family if you’ve started some. Post on social media and build your social and emotional network by sharing photos and stories of what you’re growing. A colleague at the Gardens has been making seed mixes with her children and sharing with neighbors to help brighten their spirits and their neighborhood. My nephew in Georgia loves marigolds, so I planted some in my garden and sent the rest of my seed packet to him. Now we can both grow the same plant, half a country apart. We plan to share pictures and talk about how they are growing in our different climates. At the end of the season, we can save the seeds for next year.
What does winning an AHS Great American Gardeners Award mean to you?
This award is a tremendous honor. I’ve always known that I wanted my work to be of public service to others and chose to pursue my degree in landscape architecture to focus on therapeutic gardens to be an advocate for mental health awareness. This led me to study horticultural therapy and herbal medicine as a way to create immersive experiences in gardens. Sensory and therapeutic gardens can function as safe spaces for those coping with stress and trauma, those who have experienced loss, and veterans- like my father who died by suicide. The combination of my personal experience with loss, my education, and work experiences have given me a unique perspective on garden design.