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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 our pain?

Gentle gardening for pain management

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!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Shechet, Ellie. (2019, March 25). Heal Me With Plants. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/style/plants-hospital-horticulture-therapy.html

Comments

  • Wren moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi, Angela! I don’t have a big garden anymore, but I do have a bunch of potted plants on my small apartment patio. I enjoy watering them, pinching flowers to encourage new blooms, and feeding them now and then. The greenery and the colorful flowers are a balm to my soul. Thanks for the great article–give gentle gardening a try! 🙂

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 months ago

    Thanks for your comment, Wren! I’m glad that you have some greenery to enjoy at your apartment. It makes a difference, I think!

  • JAK1016
    2 months ago

    I am an avid gardener and with the RA I have had to scale back my “push it to the extreme” nature. I have most of my yard planted so just getting the fresh air and taking care of small patches at a time does wonders for me. Even RA will not take the gardener out of me!

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 months ago

    Thank you for your comment! I’m glad that you’ve found a way to continue gardening despite having RA. Happy Spring!

  • David Advent moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi Angela, I really enjoyed reading your article. There is something very special about reconnecting and being in touch with nature. One of my goals this summer is to practice “gentle gardening” as a way to mentally and physically relax. Thank you for sharing this perspective and thank you for being a member of this community!

    -David (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team Member)

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 months ago

    Hi David!
    Thank you for your nice comment and for the support. I appreciate it! Best of luck to you with “gentle gardening” this spring/summer. 🙂

    -Angela

  • Tinyt1117
    2 months ago

    Love being in the yard and doing a bit of gardening. I do feel better if I push through the pain and do a bit, but do have to pace myself. And sitting in nature helps my soul!

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 months ago

    Sitting in nature helps my soul, too. 🙂

  • ldonaldson moderator
    2 months ago

    You are right @tinyt1117, finding that balance between pushing and pacing can be difficult. Plus, I’m much more inclined to do it if I don’t “have” to. You are right, nature is SO good for the soul. -Leanne (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team Member)

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    2 months ago

    OK you convinced me. My wife needs to go out and garden. Oh,, maybe I need to reread the write up?

    Honestly, I am just teasing. I am not a gardener, but I do enjoy a great morning sitting outside. In that regard I think I will watch Sheryl plant our flowers. 🙂

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 months ago

    Come on Rick, help Sheryl plant a flower or two. 😉

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    2 months ago

    I stay completely out of her way. No exceptions.

  • Poll