A tiny little plant growing in a pot in your home could bring you benefits beyond your imagination. We have all heard of how plants are good for us – from offering us soothing green views to providing us therapeutic calm, the list of benefits is endless.
Shinrin yoku and horticulture therapy
How many times have you been told to look away from your computer or phone, and look at some greenery to prevent eye stress? How many times have friends casually suggested that you grow some flowers at home and de-stress?
The benefits of gardening and being among nature have been known for long. People in Japan have been practicing “shinrin yoku” or forest bathing – a technique of relaxation wherein you stay silent amidst trees and the forests and “absorb” them. In the US, horticulture as therapy began as a formalised field of study way back in the 1970s.
A study titled Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis reported a wide range of health outcomes, such as reduction in depression, anxiety, and body mass index (BMI), as well as increase in life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community, from gardening.
A number of people have been taking to gardening either on their own or at the suggestion of therapists to help themselves physically and mentally. Dr Pankaja, counselling psychologist and founder of a Gurugram-based Mental Wellness Centre, points out how gardening as therapy is a newly emerging approach in the field of psychology in India. Given that gardening demands decision-making, it restores the confidence of people who are depressed and face self-esteem issues, she says.
She underlines how Touch Therapy in gardening works beneficially for anyone in distress.
- Working with your hands on soil, touching leaves and plants – ‘touch therapy’ gives a pleasant feeling and helps de-stress
- Gardening gives people confidence because they become caregivers
- Plants do not judge us or react
Dr Pankaja suggests that gardening therapy is not just about buying plants from the nursery to keep at home. “One needs to work with them every day. Watering them, checking on them every day, trimming, feeding them with fertiliser are part of the process. I often suggest to my clients to start growing plants from seed. Raising a plant is like raising a child, and gives the person who is gardening, happiness, contentment and a sense of belonging.”
Watching and nurturing colourful flowering plants has several health benefits. “Gardening gives people confidence because they become caregivers. Moreover, we tend to get attached to plants, but plants in turn don’t ask much of us and most importantly, they don’t judge us,” she stresses.
Dr Pankaja often recommends one to two hours of gardening per day to her elderly clients (55 to 75 years) who are enthusiastic to take it up.
Forming an emotional bond with plants
Mohan Shivaji Rao, a software engineer, kung-fu and yoga teacher who shuttles between Bengaluru and Mysuru, took to gardening as therapy to deal with the grief of losing two of his close friends. He started with a small number of plants in his balcony and terrace, joined several online groups to learn gardening and then composting.
Soon he also lost his mother, and the only thing that kept him going, were his plants, he says. “Even during the most trying of times, plants have their life. You develop an emotional bond with them and tend to them even in the most difficult of life circumstances,” he observes. Gardening also brought him closer to other people with whom he started interacting, whether it was to learn more about gardening, or to buy or exchange plants.
Gardening has taught him about the transience of life, says Rao. Plants also taught him not to hate anyone. “They made me realise people are here today, gone tomorrow.” His father had planted an aloe vera plant at the door of their new house. When he passed away, Rao felt that taking care of the plant was like taking care of his father. “I see a lot of meaning in my plants. When they flourish, I flourish too. If they grow, I grow with them. When a new flower booms, I believe I will get a new student…it’s an indication of new life and fresh starts.”
Helping people with special needs
Karthikeyan V, Thiruvananthapuram-based horticulture therapist, is one of the few in the country who has been researching the field since 2010, along with its pioneer Professor Beela G K of the Kerala Agricultural University. He had set up the Horticultural Therapy Healing Centre in Bengaluru in 2018 for children with special needs, which he had to wind up in 2020, when his father passed away, and return to Kerala. Currently, he runs a horticulture therapy programme for three schools in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district.
The main aim of horticulture therapy is to enhance quality of life, he says. It involves and impacts both physical and mental fitness.
He lists the three phases of horticulture therapy:
- Therapeutic phase
- Social phase
- Vocational phase
They work in association with psychologists to design individualised activities. Individual or group gardening activities are designed, based on the need for social interactions (for example for people with autism who find social interactions challenging). The last phase is specially designed for people with special needs so that they are trained in horticultural skills, such as nursery management, or nature-based craft so that they can also earn a living from it.
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH GARDENING AT HOME
Akhila Prakash, Bengaluru-based gardening enthusiast and gardening business owner suggests how you can start gardening at home:
- Start with 5 to 10 pots if you have a small balcony or terrace
- It is best to start with thick-leafed plants which need very little watering and are hardy
- Snake plant, money plant, zeezee plant, peace lily, rubber plants are some examples of what you can easily start a garden with
- Herbs are also a good idea to grow. Indian basil (tulasi), rosemary, thyme, lavendar and other scented herbs may also act as mood lifters. Greens such as spinach and lettuce can also be grown by beginners
- If you want flower plants to cheer you up, then try jasmine, vinca, hibiscus, verbena, and small creepers like morning glory to begin with
- It is not very easy to grow vegetables and one may feel disappointed when the plants do not bear fruit. So, try growing vegetables after gaining a bit of basic gardening experience.