Guerilla Horticultural Therapy at Natick Community Organic Farm

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” -Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

The perfect broccoli!

The perfect broccoli!

I know this may be a difficult concept to grasp if the potato beetles have completely overrun your crop this year, but I think the goal of most therapy is to inspire hope. If farming does indeed provide this hope, why not try to foster its growth within an agricultural environment? Enter Horticultural Therapy.

What is Horticultural Therapy

To fully understand this concept, we need to have a proper understanding of what the word “therapy” means. “Farming,” I would assume, is pretty self-explanatory: Weeding, mulching, sowing, and reaping the benefits of your hard earned harvest. So how does “therapy” fit into this paradigm? I think we can all safely agree on a definition that refers to efforts which are intended to relieve, and if we’re lucky, even heal a person. It seems strange that frustrations, like weeds overtaking your carrots, again, can be helpful to someone who is struggling with depression. Horticultural therapy attempts to use even those experiences for the benefit of the individual.

A exciting new approach for many therapeutic programs, horticultural therapy has started to see a rise in institutions that serve troubled youth, the elderly, and individuals with developmental disabilities. What is horticultural therapy though? The bare bones definition is using plant life and plant care practices to improve the mental, physical or spiritual well-being of a person. The beauty of this method, however, is that definitions cannot fully reign in the work that horticultural therapy entails. It can be adapted to different peoples and their needs. It can be adjusted to the varied environments in which these individuals live, such as the deserts of Nevada, or the rich soils of New England.

History until Now

I don’t think there are many psychoanalysts who would willingly admit that farming equals “best therapy practices,” but we could agree that building someone’s sense of purpose, ability, and accomplishment can’t hurt. Farming provides the opportunity for those experiences to be realized, and on a pretty consistent basis. The benefits of this go as far back as the 19th century. Horticultural therapy really began to take root in the 40’s and 50’s as veterans came back from war and needed assistance coping with the horrors they had experienced.

As the results became more apparent Horticultural Therapy began to find its place within numerous institutions. In order to give it more validity and professionalize the movement, training institutes began to appear. The American Horticultural Therapy Association (www.ahta.org) now monitors these training institutes to assure the accuracy and ethics of the practice. AHTA has started its own academic journal to encourage research articles that analyze the efficacy of Horticultural therapy. This serves to inform practitioners (and clients if they are curious enough) so they can continue to adjust practices and provide better practice to those seeking help within this context.

Why does it Work

“Farming is a profession of Hope”– Brian Brett

One thing that is always necessary to validate any new therapeutic method is research. As horticultural therapy has grown, case studies have been developed to look at the psychological benefits of people receiving help within these contexts. There have been studies that indicate individuals have seen a decrease in depression and anxiety while simultaneously increasing an individual’s self-esteem and ability to stay focused.

This is even as simple as considering the environment that farming takes place in — a natural one. Individuals were studied in regards to their exposure to more urban and industrial environments versus environments that were more natural. The consistent results showed that people preferred and felt better when exposed to the natural environment and it seemed to have a more peaceful and uplifting effect on them. This goes hand in hand with any idea of therapy. Without an ideal environment to begin the work of change or relief from one’s troubles, even the most time proven practice methods will struggle to have an effect. This is proven not only in social science but in nature — if we give a plant all it needs but it’s a lemon tree we leave out in a New England winter, it will not survive.

Another common tool in therapy is the use of metaphors within helping relationships. These parallels with life can include why a plant is struggling and failing to produce the way we expect it to, how a plant flourishes because of its rich soil and root system, the cycles that each farm goes through, and the adjustment and change needed when unexpected challenges are handed to the worker. These experiences follow the patterns that people experience in their own lives. We also flourish in good environments, struggle within our own lives without a clear reason why, and go through the regular cycles of change.

Most people can relate to these images, and the feelings evoked through them, with those they experience in everyday life. They experience the joy of the first fruiting eggplant and rejoice, and struggle to find the cause for the failing crop of corn they have planted. These feelings of disappointment, discouragement, and rejoicing over the fields mimic the horticultural realities they are encountering. Horticultural therapy only adds to this naturally occurring experience by helping people realize it is occurring.

The social nature of farm work is another component of the therapeutic process. Often the work that is done in the fields, or even in a simple garden, is not individualistic. As we stake tomatoes side by side you strike up conversations, or accept the intimate silence that is often uncomfortably shrugged off in other environments. For someone who struggles to feel confident in conversation, this provides an opportunity to enter in at their own pace. For another who struggles to feel accepted, farming shows the beauty of work that is done together to create a product that is appreciated by all. Even in a situation where the individual is a gardener for a household of one, it is often the case that plants produce more than we can handle at once! Here too, there is an opportunity for interacting with others and the gratification that one can feel from sharing their abundance, which has been brought forth with one’s own hands. Many of these may not even apply to the root of the issue that a person is experiencing, but placing someone within positive communal situations often helps rather than hurts.

Farming offers a safe environment to explore success and failure. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that farming is not always the idealized version of life that can be portrayed by so many “local food movements.” There are bean beetles that decide to decimate your crop of beans, hornworms that ruin your tomatoes, not to mention blight, powdery mildew, drought, insufficient nutrient content in the soil, etc. etc. When faced with these sorts of problems, how could farming be even remotely therapeutic? It doesn’t, however, mean that individuals can’t learn about expectations that are not met, what it means for all your best intentions to come to nothing, or just plain old failure. The ideal is to provide an environment where it is expected, and in a way accepted. When this is part of the status quo, it helps individuals learn about coping with the failures that they are going to face outside of the confines of a couple acres of tilled land. As Ruth Stout has said regarding the character of the farmer, “Farmers are philosophical. They have learned that it is less wearing to shrug than to beat their breasts.”

Why It Matters

So why would someone opt for a new therapeutic approach that is still gaining its validity through research as opposed to the traditional office visit? As an individual who has practiced therapy for a few years, I have come to understand that therapy can be most effective in environments that are outside of the traditional realm. A previous supervisor used to call this “guerilla therapy” — engaging in therapeutic situations outside of a defined “session.” Though I don’t work as a therapist at Natick Community Organic Farm, my current employer, I see this sneaking its way into our work. As a non-profit, education/community oriented farm, we are constantly barraged with volunteers, children, and teens that come through our programs, and even help our farm to function. Though none of my positions have involved me practicing therapy here, I see this “guerilla therapy” taking place, and have even been inspired to pursue a certification for Horticultural Therapy. Every staff person has been this “therapist” for each other, or for volunteers and program members at some point; much of this being done unconsciously. It’s what we expect to do because we work in community.

So what are the things that are brought up in this community setting? Individuals not only bring the joys of life (births, graduations, etc.) but the pains that any person could arrive with: family struggles that are being faced, addictions that are being stared down, and the interpersonal demons that are being fought. These are often people who have volunteered once or twice but are then drawn to the farm, and have literally been involved in helping establish the type of organization that we are today. Horticultural therapy is not part of our mission, but it happens because people feel allowed to come, feel accepted, and can participate.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.” — Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture


As I observe this in comparison to the practice I have done, it occurs to me that the investment of these people changes when they are on the farm. The place matters when you are working on your interpersonal life. When you go to see a therapist, there can be a desire to change, and you can even dole out the money to inspire your investment in your change, but it can be difficult for some to connect in this environment. I am not saying it is not effective, but I have seen individuals struggle with the contrived nature of a therapist’s office, and with the expected “bond” they should feel with therapists with whom they do not feel comfortable. There is no reason for them to invest in the work there. Their therapist will eventually leave them, and the therapist’s office will no longer be a place for them to go because of codes of conduct. When you are working together to create a garden this changes the relationship. The client does not rely on the horticultural therapist, but they rely on each other for the work each will do. The environment is not taken away from the client when the work is over because they are learning skills they can carry into their personal lives.

Why should this matter to you?

There are times when there are no cures for the experience of life but plunging my pitchfork into the ground and breaking the hard soil, or having the quiet reflection that weeding provides. This is why it matters to me and it gives me another reason to have my hands in the dirt. So why does this matter to you, the reader of The Natural Farmer? We farm to provide food for ourselves, we farm to be responsible to nature and the environment, we farm to provide a living, etc. But what about our holistic well-being? There is the all too often intangible feeling of accomplishment that is continually available when you feel the deeper satisfaction of weeds disappearing, crops unhindered and thriving, and plucking the first pepper you have tended and grown this season.


And that is why I think horticultural therapy has taken off. Even if we cannot always inspire the change that we would like to see in ourselves, we can change unproductive land to something that bears fruit. Though it is not always guaranteed and each season can bring a new challenge, there is the undeniable fact that “through farming, I am helping things to grow.”


For questions contact Becca Toms at becca@natickfarm.org