Garden Therapy

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Conservation horticulturist Melanie Priesnitz spends a great deal of time in the garden.

She has been helping the visitors of Acadia University’s Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens unplug and connect to nature, for years.

Recalling her career, in Ontario, working in office buildings she says, “I was wistfully looking out the window, wishing I was outside playing in the dirt.”  Finally she quit her job, bought a one-way ticket to Nova Scotia, took Horticulture studies and landed her dream job in the Botanical Gardens. Even now when she spends a day working in the office, in front of a computer, she will have trouble focusing and easily becomes restless. This makes Priesnitz especially grateful for the campus’s 50 acres of surrounding woodlands and natural brook, which rest invitingly at the backdoor of her office.

Away from her desk, Priesnitz teaches courses and workshops in Therapeutic Horticulture. Studies show time spent gardening or walking in the woods lowers blood pressure and decreases stress levels and sessions such as these can have profound effects on our mood and sense of wellbeing. Priesnitz says the workshops have participants down on the ground, digging in the moss and combing the woods for materials to build forts. Experiencing a true connection to nature and total ‘mini-escape’. She adds while her instructions at the beginning of the workshop can cause a bit of anxiety – she asks them to turn off their cell phones – it doesn’t take long to witness a complete transformation in her groups.

“I can see the feelings of playfulness and joy building as the day progresses, at the end of the day they are surprised at how quickly the time has passed and at how happy and tired they feel.”

This sort of environment offers an oasis for quiet contemplation, to learn about conservation and to connect with nature; but the Botanical Gardens also provide an important service for environmentally assisted healing simply by being so accessible to the public. Fresh air and natural therapy have always been used in convalescence. We have seen it in the Healing Gardens, in Japan, and it is reminiscent of treatments in tuberculous sanatoriums. Before antibiotics, patients spent much of the day wrapped warmly, sitting outside breathing the fresh, clean air.

In present day, convalescence in the presence of a garden can potentially shorten recovery time of hospital patients. Hospital courtyard gardens are experiencing a resurgence as statistically patients in a bed near a window, with a view of outside greenery tend to recover more quickly; receiving an early discharge. They also require, on average, approximately one third less medication than those who had no window exposure.

As is evidenced in the Horticulture Therapy Workshops, Garden and Nature Therapy goes beyond the physiological self and is of benefit our mental health, as well. Contact with nature can provide a gentle and effective path to healing, even after potentially disabling emotional trauma.

Some time ago, Priesnitz experienced a low period with mental health after witnessing a serious outdoor accident involving a loved one. Afterward she spent much of her time indoors, laying on her couch, depressed. She said it didn’t take her long to realize she needed to face her fears and go back outside. Her therapy was walking in the woods and when she felt lost she would go outside to ‘touch something real, something natural’. This grounded her and brought her back to the present, far away from the visions of danger in her head. After this she went back to work, full days, in the garden.

I grew up completely immersed in nature in an ‘off grid’ home, surrounded by gardens. There is a deep peacefulness that comes from being front row center to growth, rebirth and the wheel of natural cycles. With such balance and symmetry, it’s hard not to feel more grounded, inspired and charged with perspective. As insurance on a healthy lifestyle I support Prieznitz when she says, “lounging on the lawn, staring up at the sky and walking on the grass are always encouraged”.

Photo courtesy of The Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens