Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Gardening’s Unique Potential for Healing Trauma

There is a good chance that you either are a gardener, you live with one or you know one. As such, you know that whether you are tending to potted geraniums on the deck, prizing the tomatoes in your yard or creating a lush horticultural expanse…there is something about gardening.

With radiocarbon dating revealing that horticultural activity began c 9,000 BCE in an area close to the Dead Sea, and contention with whether the first garden was in China or Egypt, suffice it to say–we have been gardening for a long time.

Why We Garden?

Many have explained this proclivity to gardening in terms of our primal urge to commune with nature, a sense of awe at beauty beyond man’s capacity to create, an urge to feel solitude apart from the maddening crowd, etc.…

While always implied, there is also increasing discussion of the mental health benefits of gardening. It is no surprise that for years people in and outside of my office have pointed to gardening as their stress reducing activity.   In fact, a recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities.

Gardening in the Aftermath of Trauma

Adding to this and particularly important in a world that continues to experience and witness natural and man-made disaster and atrocity is the consideration of gardening’s potential in healing the impact of trauma.

  • Renowned writer and horticulturalist, Irene Virag, poignantly describes the role of gardening in her journey with breast cancer.
  • Veterans in The Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System operate a 15-acre VA garden of beauty and sellable bounty as part of a horticultural therapy program, which has reduced depression and psychiatric hospitalizations.
  • A New York Times article, “ Seeking Serenity in a Patch of California Land,” reports on gardening as a source of healing trauma. Bridging diverse cultures not accustomed to traditional therapy, the mental health department set aside gardens to address the depression, suicidal thinking and post-traumatic stress of immigrants and refugees isolated by language, poverty, memories of war, rape and starvation.

Does Gardening Really Have the Potential to Heal Trauma?

When you consider some essential characteristics of gardening in counter-position to trauma’s impact on the core self, it seems that gardening may be a unique source of restoration and healing. Consider these possibilities:

From Vulnerable to Verdant

In face of traumatic events, be they the loss of a loved one to illness or the devastation from a pandemic, we feel a profound sense of powerlessness. We are robbed of a familiar self who knows how to problem solve, move, help, and protect those we love.

In the garden there is some relief from the sense of helplessness because there is less risk in daring to make something happen. We don’t go into the garden to reset a sense of purpose or power.  Rather, enjoying what is often a reprieve from shame, self-blame, crying or worrying, we find that plants and flowers are gentle company. They embrace us and allow us to engage without judgment. They even grow with partial plastic seed paks still attached! The garden resets the possibility that our touch can make something positive possible.

From Trauma Time to Nature’s Time

Traumatic events disrupt our continuity of time. At the moment we are in a pandemic with no end in sight. In a sense time has lost relevancy. What we all had planned individually and as groups won’t happen at the time it was planned. The future is beyond our access but we are all striving to do our best to take one day at a time. Sometimes the best we can do is one hour at the time.

In the garden nature keeps its own time. A crocus blooms in a pile of broken tree limbs after the storm, the daffodils show up on time this Spring even when things seem askew with the world. A young woman tells me that the wild blue flowers that show up in her garden each summer remind her of her mother and the close feeling of being near her. Whether conscious or not, gardening helps us cope with traumatic times.

“He who plants, believes in the future.”

From Negative Sensations To Nature’s Sensations

Given that we respond to traumatic events with the human survival responses of fight, flight and numbing, trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine suggest that we suffer because we cannot “ shake off” the body’s readiness for danger, or the traumatic memories carried in flashbacks, tactile sensations or sensory reactivity to reminders of the event.

In the garden, the physical exertion of gardening allows the body an opportunity to re-direct hyperarousal, to experience movement, heavy breathing, even perspiration for good reason. The stimulation of the senses by the fragrances, visual beauty and physical touch inherent in gardening are powerful antidotes to the negative sensations that re-terrify and fuel avoidance of life after trauma.

To be startled over and over again by the fragrance of roses, the hint of honeysuckle or the beauty of a dogwood tree is to re-claim one’s senses.

From Lost and to Found in Nature

Trauma expert, Robert Stolorow tells us that basic to the experience of psychological trauma is a “dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation” that compromises connection and recovery. Central to this sense of estrangement is the lost connection with self.

In the garden, there is the opportunity to do what needs to be done to find and restore self–essentially, to lose oneself in the moment. Much as the runner finds in “ the zone” and those who meditate find in opening an inner space for self, getting lost in gardening equates to connection beyond consciousness, to fining a self that can feel peace and self-soothing again.

From Assaulted Belief to Nature’s Transformation

While spirituality serves as an important resource for many after trauma, others feel that what has happened calls into question their belief in God. For those who feel their belief has been assaulted, their pain is great as they are bereft of their usual source of hope and soothing at a time they need it most.

In the garden, no organized religion has ownership. What people feel from being steeped in nature is often described as transformative of heart and soul. For some, such transformation feels sacred. However it transforms or inspires, being with nature often re-kindles or redefines belief. A young man, who lost his wife, was not religious in any way but shared that at great moments of despair, he felt surprising relief standing in his garden watching the sunset.

“ I felt less alone and reassured that I could still count on something to ease the pain.”

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