February 13, 2024
From soil to soul: The path to a horticultural therapy career

From soil to soul: The path to a horticultural therapy career


If you've ever felt the calming influence of nature, then you are, however inadvertently, familiar with the notion of horticultural therapy. It can be a pretty profound experience and there are many scientific studies that demonstrate the healing powers of nature, dating back decades. For example, Dr. Roger Ulrich, an expert in healthcare architecture, compared hospital patients recovering from surgery in the 1980s and found that those with a window view of a natural setting had shorter postoperative hospital stays and required less pain medication than patients with windows that faced brick walls. This study continues to influence how horticulture is incorporated in therapeutic settings all around the world.

As we head into the later half of winter — a potentially gloomy time of year that can be difficult when it comes to mental health — we’re sharing this excerpt from the January 2024 episode of the Landscape Ontario Podcast, which explores the profession of horticultural therapy and the various ways it can help patient populations recover from trauma and illness.

The special guest was Guinevere Kern, a registered horticultural therapist and member of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association. Kern advocates for the development of streamlined formal therapy career training for horticultural therapists — and broader awareness of horticultural therapy as a legitimate treatment option.

Whether you're a seasoned landscaper looking for a new direction or someone fascinated by the idea of helping others through the therapeutic magic of plants, this career pathway might be for you.

What does it mean to be a horticultural therapy practitioner?

When we think about the term horticultural therapy and the profession of it, it actually refers to the cultivation of plants, garden space, natural environments and different landscapes that promote health and well-being for individuals and groups that are participating in a treatment-oriented process.

An important thing to note is that horticultural therapy is goal oriented and works with certain defined outcomes informed by assessment procedures. They have to be administered by professionally trained horticultural therapists.

How do you become a designated horticultural therapist in Canada?

The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association is the governing body for registered horticultural therapists in Canada, and the process of becoming a professionally registered horticultural therapist is a combination of education as well as practical experience.

It is inherently interdisciplinary. You need to have educational experience in horticulture and related academic studies, such as environmental studies or urban agriculture, let's say. Botany, plant science, etc.

You also need to have experience and education in human services. So that could be anything related to psychology, sociology, or other types of humanities studies. You also need to have educational experience in horticultural therapy. So the theoretical as well as practical applications of how they really can come together to promote health and well-being in different individuals and groups.

After that educational component, you also need to have practical experience. So as we know in horticulture, there's often seasonal components, indoor work, outdoor work, and there's so much to know about the growth, health and sustainability of plants and plant life. So you really need to have that practical experience too. There are lots of different areas where that can be exercised, such as clinical, non-clinical or community-oriented spaces. The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association's website has the registration guidelines.

There's quite a lot incorporated into getting your designation, and it often takes people quite a long time to get there. But hopefully this is going to be something that, as there's been more attention and interest in the field of horticultural therapy as a viable professional treatment option for folks, we can get more folks registered to make greater impact in clinical or non-clinical settings.

With so few practitioners currently registered, we luckily have some experts in the field who have offered different coursework and intensive study programs. But there is certainly an opportunity for that to grow, and I would argue that there's actually a real necessity for the field of horticultural therapy to be implemented in a post-secondary academic arena in Canada.

I had the chance to go down to the American Horticultural Therapy Association Conference in Kansas City last year and was exposed to very large, reputable universities in the United States that are offering horticultural therapy certificate programs as well as undergraduate programs.

So I think the fact that there isn't that opportunity yet for people to take horticultural therapy through a postsecondary institution in Canada is an area of growth where we can really offer all the unique skills that we bring to the table as health care professionals rooted in the practice of horticulture to support people's health and well-being. Hopefully [there will eventually be] an opportunity for the development of allied health professionals to see this as a viable career opportunity to move forward and support individuals and communities in the clinical and non-clinical context.

What are some of the personal qualities that would make an individual well suited for a career in horticultural therapy?

The path to becoming a registered horticultural therapist in Canada is nonlinear. Know that you're going to have to commit yourself to further education, which is going to potentially take years. You’ll also have to seek out opportunities to develop the horticulture experience required to get the professional designation. There are so many different arenas of academic study that you can pull from to really have an effective mechanism for how you curate your treatment plans and implement programming that is creative, impactful and viable, and that gets the results that you and your patients — individual or group — are looking to achieve.

Within that, you're always going to be learning. You really have to be comfortable with the fact that the path is not set in stone for you. And so to be continuously reevaluating, having your finger on the pulse for new research that's coming out — it's exciting. But at the same time, it can be a little bit overwhelming. So I think those skills of patience, persistence and a growthoriented mindset are key.

A real underlying factor in someone being a successful practitioner but also a successful team member is being a strong communicator and having an inherently collaborative outlook on ways that we can support the profession, but also support people's health and well-being. I've been so fortunate in all the settings I’ve worked in because I've gotten the opportunity to learn from and work with other members of the health care team that I'm a part of.

That also includes recreational therapists, community stakeholders, executive directors of nonprofits and community organizations. That includes dieticians, psychologists, psychotherapists, nutritionists, chiropractors, physiotherapists — the list can really go on.

What are the different employment opportunities for horticultural therapists?

Horticultural therapists have worked in a variety of settings. Historically speaking, horticultural therapy really has its roots in rehabilitation centres and exercising — gross and fine motor movement improvements and supporting people in recovery from injuries.

Horticultural therapists have worked in prison systems, schools and older adult settings. People who are neurodivergent have been on the receiving end of horticultural therapy practiced in outdoor settings such as farms and urban centres in green spaces.

Typically, people in horticultural therapy get their start in long-term care. That's a particular population and health care setting that has been more receptive. That's where I got my start as a horticultural therapist. That was a really interesting experience for me to see the impact of horticultural therapy on patients, but staff can certainly benefit from this as well. We know that healthcare workers are experiencing advanced stages of burnout and are leaving the profession entirely due to the stressors in our healthcare system.

When we think about some of the key indicators of people's health and wellbeing, we see anxiety and stress. Stress is a precursor for many of the chronic diseases that we're experiencing as a population. So when we're considering new ways to implement this viable therapeutic profession, I think that there are ways to reach more people in our population who are experiencing stress and anxiety, which we know have no borders on the people that they impact.

There truly is no limit to the impact that people choosing horticultural therapy as a profession can have.


This interview was adapted from an episode of the Landscape Ontario podcast, published Tuesday, January 2, 2024. To listen to the podcast, visit landscapeontario.com/podcast, or search for it on your favourite podcast app.