Female figure in front of an assortment of potted plants and potting supplies.

Healing With Plants

I recently read an article in the New York Times about horticulture therapy, and how "gentle gardening" can help patients who are recovering from surgery, dealing with mental health issues, or struggling with other medical conditions.

According to the article, "Heal Me With Plants," horticulture therapy is often used in hospitals, bringing a bit of greenery, nature, and life into a "setting where patients routinely feel poked and prodded, isolated and immobile."1

The article also claims that the act of nurturing a plant can be a "transportive part of the recovery process."1 If the hospital and post-surgery patients are responding well to this type of therapy, what about those of us with RA? Can gardening help ease ourpain?

What is horticultural therapy?

Horticultural therapy uses nature and gardening-like activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to help patients feel better. These horticultural activities may include arranging flowers as well as working with small plants by potting, pruning, and watering them.

It's not supposed to be strenuous work, compared to some larger scale gardening tasks, such as taking care of a garden plot in your yard (weeding, bending, stooping, shoveling, raking, etc).

Gentle gardening helps with relaxation

Living with RA pain every day, I'm very open to trying new things that could help improve my pain and health. And I actually really like this idea of using gentle gardening to help me relax, de-stress and decrease my pain. Relaxation is a big part of pain management, I think, yet it's often difficult for those of us with RA to practice. I have a terrible time doing it myself.

Shifting focus from the patient

"The best thing about horticultural therapy is that I’m no longer the subject," said one patient who was part of the program at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation center in Manhattan.

I can certainly relate to this sentiment. I get so tired of feeling like I'm being constantly poked and prodded and tested, the subject of a never-ending medical experiment. It's such a relief whenever I can get a chance to escape from being a full-time patient --even if just for a little while. Gardening and connecting with nature sounds like an excellent distraction. If my body will let me do it, that is.

Regular gardening versus gentle gardening

Usually, gardening is an activity that many of those with RA have to cut down on doing or totally give up. Why? It can be quite physical work, often requiring the gardener to bend, stoop, lift, rake, and do other repetitive tasks using his or her hands. It's hard on the body--especially if your joints are already inflamed.

Possible benefits for people living with RA

Gentle gardening, such as horticulture therapy, may provide a way for RA patients to continue getting their hands dirty in the soil while also helping relieve their stress and pain. And for those who don't have any gardening experience, an opportunity to work with plants and connect with nature might help them get some much-needed relaxation while also improving their overall health.

"There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature," writes groundbreaking biologist and environmentalist Rachel Carson. "[It's] the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Gentle gardening as a new hobby?

I'm not a huge "outdoorsy" type or fanatic, but I do notice that when I'm out in the calm and beauty of nature, I feel a lot better. Just stepping outside into the fresh air (and hopefully sunshine) and sitting on the grass with a book for a little while can greatly improve my mood and my RA symptoms. Whenever I'm out in nature--whether it's reading or biking or just sitting somewhere quietly--I often find it hard to leave it.

Recognizing that nature is indeed something that I appreciate, admire, love, and ultimately need, the idea of perhaps starting a new hobby, such as "gentle gardening," sounds really appealing to me. I love flowers and plants and trees and anything green. Why not try my (arthritic) hand at gardening? I know there will be physical limitations because of my RA, but this New York Times article about horticulture therapy gives me some hope that maybe I can do it after all.

As one of my favorite authors Margaret Atwood writes, "In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Happy planting!

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