Pacific Northwest | November 16, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 16, home
Home delivery
Search archive
Contact us

 Dining Out 2003

Creative Care
Feeling the healing through fingers in the soil
Horticultural therapist Sheila Taft helps clients at Cancer Lifeline make pictures with pressed flowers. The session is part of a larger program to use garden- and nature-related activities to help people cope with stress and illness.
There's something a little odd about linking the words "horticulture" and "therapy." Are we talking about plant psychology? You can just picture the ravenously carnivorous Audrey in "Little Shop of Horrors," stem and leaves stretched out on the couch, seeking to understand why she gobbles down any man she sees.

But humans are the true beneficiaries of this therapy that uses plants and gardens to reduce stress, soothe Alzheimer's patients, rehabilitate the injured and redirect the energies of troubled teens.

Gardeners know there is no more absorbing distraction from the cares of the day than stepping out the door to pull weeds, prune or just putter. Working with plants holds and focuses our attention as few other activities can, and studies show that as little as four minutes in a garden will reduce stress, steady the vital signs and improve your mood.

Sheila Taft is a registered horticultural therapist with a Scottish lilt to her voice and great enthusiasm for her job at Cancer Lifeline, a place where people living with cancer and their caregivers can go for help and support. Taft believes that tapping into creativity helps the healing process. She encourages her clients to take a respite from serious worries for a few hours while crafting a living wreath of succulents, learning how to propagate African violets, or snacking on tea and crumpets while watching a video of the Chelsea Flower Show. Taft has teamed up with a nutritionist to teach classes on plants from soil to skillet, and she works with art and music therapists to best use the healing garden spaces at Cancer Lifeline.

The program is successful and growing; in October the American Horticultural Therapy Association awarded its 2003 Therapeutic Garden Design Award to its healing gardens, spaces designed by University of Washington Professor Daniel Winterbottom and his students. Taft uses the three gardens there in various ways; she might teach a class on herbs in the Earth and Sky Garden, which is large enough for group activities, or encourage quiet contemplation in the intimate Reflection Garden. Each space promotes different types of activities, an idea Taft recommends for home gardens as well.

Maureen Phillips is Taft's mentor, and she teaches horticultural therapy at Edmonds Community College, which has the only such course of study in Washington. She graduated from the program 20 years ago, and still only 350 horticultural therapists are registered nationwide. Phillips' students go on to work with prison inmates, shut-ins and the elderly; they also design healing gardens.

Because gardening taps into our memories, it is particularly effective with Alzheimer's patients. Taft tells the story of being in a rose garden with an Alzheimer's patient who, mistaking Taft for her sister, asked, "Do you remember when mother used to grow these?"

Many of the lessons learned by these two pioneers will be showcased in the new Tranquil Garden they are helping design at Magnuson Park for debut next summer. The public, walled garden with raised beds for people with disabilities is being planned to appeal to all comers because, explains Phillips, "We can't separate out the human race." I think what she means is that the pursuit and enjoyment of this mysterious and vital connection between plants and people is of great benefit to us all.

The local chapter of the American Horticultural Therapy Association can be reached through the national Web page at If you have questions about the programs at Cancer Lifeline, call 206-297-2100 or

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

More Plant Life columns

Today Archive

Advanced search

advertising home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company


Back to topBack to top