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Therapy

LGBTQ+ Horticultural Therapy

Affirming nature's diversity.

Key points

  • Horticultural therapy (HT) activities can focus on the product, process, performance, interaction or environment.
  • HT can help LGBTQ+ clients develop a deep sense of belonging and connection.
  • HT empowers clients by identifying unmet needs, and nurturing agency and self-worth.
  • HT reinforces the mind-body connection, engaging curiosity and the felt experience.

In any garden, you’ll find a microcosm of order and chaos, new growth and withered disease, companion plants and parasites, abundance and drought, crowding and isolation, pollination and death. This is the profound purity of Horticultural Therapy (HT). By tending to a garden, and observing the life cycle of nature, we begin to recognize ourselves in the world around us.

HT, like any modality that loans itself to occupational therapy, also recognizes the diverse routes to growth, as any activity can focus on the product, the process, building competent performance, interaction with others, or interaction with the environment.1,2 For some of us the product is everything, and finishing a worthwhile garden project grants a great sense of accomplishment. For others, the process of planting, weeding, or harvesting is in itself soothing. For others, it’s the performance factor, exploring dimensions of power, control, mastery and humility. For others, it’s the interpersonal collaboration with fellow gardeners that awakens insight, and for others still, it’s the peace and communion with nature that provides healing.1,2 HT activities can be direct and educational, providing opportunities to build intercommunication skills as well as practical life skills.2 Yet today let’s focus on the therapeutic relationship with nature itself, as it pertains to LGBTQ+ personal growth.

Fostering A Sense of Belonging

Feelings of alienation and isolation are common, especially when we’re young and queer. We may struggle with internalized sexism, heterosexism, or cissexism, leading us to erroneously believe that we are, in some way, unnatural. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as any botanist or zoologist will tell you. For LGBTQ+ youth in particular, HT can foster a sense of belonging and connection both within ourselves and the world that we’re a part of. Because even when we can’t see ourselves in society, or even in our family, it’s still possible to see ourselves in nature.

Alex Stitt
Alex Stitt, LMHC, hand pollinating a dragon-fruit flower.
Source: Alex Stitt

Notice. Observe. If we plant only one kind of flower, then our garden becomes susceptible to disease, but if we plant diversity, we’ll see how each seed benefits the whole garden. Notice. Observe. Beans give nitrogen back to the soil, helping the carrots to grow. Mint protects lettuce from being attacked by slugs. Thyme will encourage strawberries, and despite being unlikely allies make a lovely jam together.

It’s very common for us to relate to other people, and resonate with their stories, but when we resonate with nature itself we begin to explore how we impact the environment just as much as the environment impacts us. Interconnection is an integral facet of the LGBTQ+ affirmative process, as addressing minority stress means validating our self-worth, and recognizing that sunflowers don’t do well in the shade.

As a nurturing process, HT demonstrates how to identify and tend to our own needs, as we tend to those of the garden. What nutrients are lacking? What’s been overexposed or over-watered? This hands-in-the-soil approach is important to get us out of our heads, as the existential riddles of validity, liminality, and even suicidal ideation can leave us feeling ungrounded. Philosophical answers are rarely satisfying because what we’re looking for is not an idea, but a feeling—an emotional being state. Often, we’re looking for the euphoric glow of authenticity, or the warmth of social acceptance.

Talk-therapy falls short at this juncture, as we can talk about being numb, fatigued, and depressed all day. To compare, HT makes broad, abstract and overly cerebral concepts tangible, as gardening gets us into our bodies through full sensory immersion. It’s hard to practice mindfulness cooped up in an office, but with chirping birds, and a gentle breeze, and the smell of flowers it’s so much easier to reconnect with our physicality. This is important, as Descartes “I think, therefore I am” underestimated how existentially lonely the chambers of the mind are.

Gardening, farming, planting and harvesting, exercise every part of our being to show us how we can literally change our environment. This grounded level of empowerment matters for sexual and gender minorities that so often have to rely on independent resourcefulness. And between us, there’s nothing quite as empowering as a homegrown meal or—for those who are truly patient— returning to an orchard that you planted.

For those less focused on the product, HT expands awareness through observation, nurturance, collaboration, and a touch of metaphor, while also expanding curiosity via engagement.

Overcoming Pessimistic Thoughts

Consider how the anxiety that stems from minority stress attempts to protect us by anticipating danger. It presumes to know what will happen, before it happens, so as to avoid risk. After surviving like this for a few years, or even a few decades, we may become trapped by our own pessimistic expectations, not just about the world, but about ourselves. We presume that, because we’ve touched trees before, all bark is rough. But nature is full of surprises, and not everything is as it seems. Some bark is smooth, some leaves are silky or fuzzy, some flowers are edible, and some bear hidden thorns.

Chances are no one will be overly surprised when they reach out to touch the bark, but the act of exploration is the first step to challenging our own presumptions, and so too our own limits. Notice. Observe. The lichen is springy. How many animals thrive in this one tree? Do you think that scorch mark came from lightning? It's blossoming now.

Perhaps, by engaging this kind of curiosity with our external world, we can foster the same playful curiosity for ourselves.

References

Hagedorn, R. (1995). Occupational Therapy: Perspective and Processes. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone

Haller, R.L., Capra, C.L. (2017). Horticultural Therapy Methods: Connecting People and Plants in Health Care, Human Services, and Therapeutic Programs. Second Edition. New York, NY: CRC Press

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