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Horticultural therapy at NC Botanical Garden uses plants to help people

As the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s resident horticultural therapist, Sally Haskett uses plants to help people with a range of needs, from at-risk children and teens to people with physical or mental differences or injuries.
As the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s resident horticultural therapist, Sally Haskett uses plants to help people with a range of needs, from at-risk children and teens to people with physical or mental differences or injuries. roadsendnaturalist.com

There’s something therapeutic about gardening, or simply being around plants. To plenty of people, this is just common sense. To Sally Haskett, it’s also a professional discipline. As the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s resident horticultural therapist, she uses plants to help people with a range of needs, from at-risk children and teens to people with physical or mental differences or injuries.

“I currently work with a fairly young woman who has had a traumatic brain injury,” Haskett says, citing one example. “She has a lot of anxiety. One thing I can do with her is give her a plant to water, which seems like a very simple task to do, but there is something in the process of actually watering the plant that is very nurturing to her as she nurtures the plant.”

Horticultural therapy is a little bit allied health – the branch of healthcare that includes occupational therapy, physical therapy and recreational therapy – and a little bit horticulture. Saturday at the Botanical Garden, Haskett teaches her annual introductory workshop. Attendees learn about a field that, as she puts it, is more than the sum of its parts.

“It really is a combination of both, but it’s more than either,” Haskett says. “It draws from one and it draws from the other and it brings its own elements as well.”

She works to document how and why horticultural therapy works. Using a 2016 grant from the Chapel Hill-based Strowd Roses charitable foundation, her program hired a researcher to collect qualitative and quantitative data at The Farm at Penny Lane, one of the locations where Haskett practices.

The News & Observer caught up with Haskett to learn more about her field.

Q: Who are the people who are drawn to horticultural therapy?

A: It’s quite varied. The profession itself is a really lovely blend between allied health and horticulture. It really draws people from both of those persuasions. There’s people who have gone through social work and might be working with people as a social worker, or it might be an occupational therapist or a rec therapist, somebody that is working directly in a practical setting in a daycare center or even in a healthcare center in a retirement community. There’s that person who is looking to expand and enlarge the work they do with people.

And there are horticulturalists like myself. I am a landscape designer, but I don’t have time to do too much of that these days. I have a degree in landscape architecture. I did that for 25 years and I enjoyed it, but I felt like there was something missing in my work, and I wanted a closer connection with people. I came that way, but I picked up some social science training along the way and some specific horticulture therapy training.

Q: How is horticultural therapy more than just horticulture and therapy combined?

A: There are 10 credits of training just in horticultural therapy that are required to become a registered horticultural therapist. When I went through that training, I started really delving into the subject of the way people have used nature and gardening over the years – over the centuries, over the millennia, actually. It goes back to ancient Persia and Egypt and people walking in courtyards for therapeutic benefits. We learn about that, we learn about how over time gardens have been very important places, gathering places for people and families and worship and certainly eating – eating food is a huge part of it. Understanding that a little bit over history.

Then we go through some training about the different people with various abilities, and we do some training on working with people with mental illness, for instance, or with developmental disabilities. We try to blend the two, and we develop means of working with people in a therapeutic context.

Q: Is there something in the human psyche that makes us connect like that to plants?

A: Obviously, we rely on plants for our very existence, so I think there is some innate understanding about that. There’s something about that color green, about being out in nature, that we identify with and that we understand on some level of our being – plants as sustenance, plants as shelter, that sort of thing. There’s a theory that was developed by a man named E.O. Wilson, and the theory is called biophilia. His theory is that we are naturally attracted to other life forms, and certainly plants are one of them.

Q: You work at the Botanical Garden and the Farm at Penny Lane. Are those your base gardens?

A: My base is the Botanical Garden. The Farm at Penny Lane is an outreach program, and we have a couple of outreach programs like that. I’ve been working at the farm for a couple of years with people with mental illness who come there for the therapeutic work that we do.

Q: How common is it for a botanical garden to have a horticultural therapist and what does that do for the garden?

A: Horticultural therapy exists in a lot of different locations, botanical gardens being one of them. There are a number of programs across the country and across the world of people who are hired specifically to do horticultural therapy in some day facility centers. It can happen in a lot of different places.

Botanical gardens, I think, are a very special place for horticultural therapy to happen because there’s already a special emphasis on the importance of plants and the importance of understanding the connection between plants and people. That’s the mission of our botanical garden – to inspire understanding between people and nature. The conservation ethic is also really important in our work that we do. There’s a natural affinity for plants already at the botanical garden.

Therapeutic horticulture workshop

N.C. Botanical Garden offers “Therapeutic Horticulture: An Introductory Workshop” with Sally Haskett, horticultural therapist, from 8:15 a.m.-5 p.m. March 25. The workshop fee is $125 ($100 for NCBG members). This is a full-day workshop that provides an overview of the theory and practice of therapeutic horticulture. Participants learn how to use plants, gardens and nature as a therapeutic tool for health and well-being, including physical, social, emotional and cognitive health. It includes a discussion of ways to integrate therapeutic horticulture into various settings for people of all ages and abilities. Info at nando.com/horticulturetherapy.

How you can help

The Horticultural Therapy program at the N.C. Botanical Garden is a community-supported initiative.

If you would like to help them reach more people, go to give.unc.edu. Choose N.C. Botanical Garden and under “Select a Fund” choose “Horticultural Therapy.”