The Daily Dirt

FoodCorps Friday: Horticultural Therapy

By Leah Kelley

As a school garden teacher, I have worked with youth in gardening for over 3 years now, and I so enjoy teaching them about the magic it is to grow food, to learn about our food systems, nutrition, and cooking. The populations I’ve worked with are urban, in Lansing, MI, Waco, TX, and now, Atlanta, GA, working as a FoodCorps Service Member through Captain Planet Foundation. My students have often been initially unsure or even repulsed by gardening and eating fresh foods, but I’ve watched them grow to love the squiggly worms of vermicompost and enjoy grabbing a leaf of swiss chard to eat raw. While I believe this work is of great importance, there are deeper needs to be met than a lack of knowledge about gardening. Some of my students have struggled with pasts of abuse, a lack of a permanent home,  and mental illness. In my time working with school and after school gardening programs, I’ve seen how healing it can be to be outside, being a steward of plants, and how the garden becomes a safe space. Many of us farmers and home gardeners are familiar with this: after a long hard day, there is something so soothing in quietly starting seeds, finding hope in the potential growth. After noticing this effect on my students, I looked into it more, and discovered the “budding” field of Horticultural Therapy.


Horticultural Therapy is defined as the engagement of a client in horticultural activities, facilitated by a trained therapist to achieve specific and documented treatment goals (AHTA). This past November I received a Les Dames d’Escoffier International Atlanta Chapter scholarship to complete a Fundamentals course through the Horticultural Therapy Institute of Denver, and I’m incredibly thankful to LDEI for helping me to pursue this dream.  The course opened up the many applications of Horticultural Therapy- prison gardens, community gardens for the homeless, gardening with elderly, rehabilitation, as well as working with troubled youth. We discussed the many metaphors that nature provides for therapy- resilient plants relate to perseverance, weeding is an exercise to weed out bad thoughts/influences, watering can relate to self-care, and so much more. Gardening gives students a feeling of purpose, and the effects of soil microbes and essential nutrients that vegetables provide have been proven to reduce depression and anxiety. We received access to many studies on the effectiveness of Horticultural Therapy in various program models, and an opportunity to connect with Horticultural Therapists in Atlanta and the Southeast.


One of my favorite activities to share is imbibing basil seeds. Holding seeds in your hand, get them slightly wet. The water and warmth of your hands will cause them to begin to visibly imbibe, absorbing water so the seed coat can split. It creates a sweet starting point for discussing the need- for plants and humans both- to open up and become vulnerable, for growth to occur. Which brings me to my favorite word: cotyledon. This word means the leaf within the seed, and for me has been a beautiful metaphor for the potential and hope inside what is, at first glance, dry and stagnant.



[Side note: Cotyledon Jubilee is the name of my vegetable-themed embroidery shop on Etsy- If you’ve always been looking for kitchen towels with hand-embroidered veggies, look no further:]


Horticultural Therapy is a small but growing field, and I am currently sharing what I’ve learned through the Fundamentals Course with Atlanta Public Schools and fellow FoodCorps Service Members. This training has enabled me to make a greater impact in Atlanta schools, by meeting deeper needs of students to empower them for their futures. Which, I do hope, may be futures in local food system work. As for my future, I’m hoping to continue taking courses to become a registered Horticultural Therapist, and someday start a youth therapy farm to be named (of course) Cotyledon. Here’s to chasing your dreams!

  1. dr. deb rosenstein says:

    This is wonderful. My Masters degree is in Rehabiliation Counseling with an emphasis in Horticultural Therapy, which I received in 1975!!!!
    I would love to talk with you more about this.
    dr. deb

  2. Terri Houston says:

    I work in a retirement community and we are looking for a therapy program like yours for our residents especially in the assisted living part. If there is such a therapy program where you come out and do like a show and tell of different flowers that we could start from cuttings and I hear the red geraniums are perfect for this we would be interested for sure. We want to engage our residents in more activities that would let them have hands on in creating and caring for something that they have done in the past. If you don’t do this please, if you know of someone, let me know. My folks need more to do than just Bingo! We try everyday with something new but they love Bingo.

    Thank you!!
    Terri Houston
    Loganville Ga

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