Freedom From Torture
Horticultural therapy, by Karen Piper
Freedom From Torture, a UK-based charity, got in touch as they are hosting a botanical pop up in London where they will be running talks and workshops centered around the therapeutic benefits of gardening, plants and the outdoors. The charity provides specialist psychological therapy to asylum seekers and refugees who have survived torture.
The pop-up will feature botanical-themed talks and workshops, a variety of plants to buy from tropical to succulent species and botanical artwork. The shop is inspired by the charity's horticultural therapy group that allows survivors of torture to begin their healing journey by reconnecting with the earth, plants and community.
Here Karen Piper, their Horticultural Therapist, shares with us a little about how she became a horticultural therapist and the benefits of horticultural therapy.
Horticultural therapy, by Karen Piper
My journey into Horticultural Therapy grew from the desire to take talking therapy outside. I had practised for several years as a Counselling Psychologist in services that support people living with life-limiting or long-term physical conditions, and whilst there were clear benefits to providing regular psychological therapy sessions in a consulting room, community hall, or at a hospital bedside, I was eager to take these therapeutic spaces into nature.
Horticultural Therapy is one approach under the umbrella of green therapies that uses garden and nature-based activities to benefit the physical and mental health of those who participate. Horticultural activities are tailored to purposefully support the wellbeing needs of an individual or group, in addition to providing the more generic benefits of gardening and being in the fresh air. It is largely a person-centred approach where the priority, wherever possible, is for client need to be met by the tasks of the garden rather than the needs of the garden just being carried out by the client. However, I believe this does tend to oscillate as a two-way dynamic in practice.
I knew from my own passion for nature and gardening, having myself grown up with one hand in the soil, that the elements of fresh air, movement, sensory stimulation, or holding responsibility for the growth of a plant could add additional benefits to therapeutic dialogue, but also stand distinct as contributors to wellbeing. I had to learn more and after a helpful conversation with the training advisors at Thrive, the gardening for health charity, I was encouraged to study with the Royal Horticultural Society to learn about plant identification, propagation and cultivation, with a view to then transitioning into a job role that would utilise both my psychology experience and more recently developed horticultural knowledge and skills. I also did some training with Thrive, specifically around their approach of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture. This enabled me to understand and practise the application of the theory and processes involved to make gardening more than just generally ‘good for you’, but to be able to design, plan and implement programmes of therapy in a garden space specifically for the unique participants attending.
Quite amazingly the job as Horticultural Therapist at Freedom from Torture appeared very soon after I had completed all this training. It felt like the perfect opportunity for me - to be able to work in an existing therapeutic garden with a client group that could really benefit from this approach to healing: what could be more rewarding than that!
The first challenge was tackling the garden, which had been left unattended for two years due to the pandemic and required attention before it could be used for Horticultural Therapy. Of course, any garden is an ongoing maintenance project. I have had to accept that, striving to create a space that, while currently a bit rough around the edges, can still offer clients pockets of solace and the chance to be creative and hopeful in the tasks they are engaging with. For our clients at Freedom from Torture, fostering hope is one of the most significant benefits to their healing that growing can offer – the evidence of renewal and flourishing from the smallest seeds or most challenging of conditions.
As well as psychological gains such as hope, a sense of purpose, or increased self-esteem, Horticultural Therapy can provide physical, social, and cognitive benefits too. For many of our clients, managing persistent pain is something they face daily, and gardening can offer the movement needed to manage pain in a format that emphasises pleasure, creating different, more positive associations to their circumstances.
Whether between client or client and therapist, the shared social experience of meaningful activity can be one of the most valuable aspects of Horticultural Therapy. It can boost confidence, reduce isolation and allow an individual to reconnect with an identity that may have been lost or destroyed through torture and its impact.
In the therapy garden at Freedom from Torture, we also aim to include an element of mindfulness throughout all the activities, whether that is about tuning in to the textures and scent of a soil or taking a minute to notice how the body is responding to digging actions. This can build a client’s connection to the task at hand and encourage ‘grounding’ as a useful strategy to manage some trauma-related symptoms.
We have recently planted some purple-sprouting broccoli and cauliflowers, with our clients coming up with ingenious methods to capitalise on water retention and protect the plants from being eaten by other insects and animals. We have enjoyed tasting a small harvest of potatoes and figs and are awaiting the ripening fruits of a grape vine that seems to envelop every inch of the garden! There is the fragrance of sweet peas, planted by our first client to come into the garden for Horticultural Therapy since reopening, and the delicate but powerfully scented flowers of a lemon tree to enjoy on a sensory walk of the space.
Hopefully a little more rain and the cooler temperatures of September will mean we can also utilise the other raised beds and the greenhouse for some late summer salad crops. We will also begin to identify the plants that clients would like to grow into next season, particularly the foods or flowers that are familiar to them, either from their home countries, or ones that they just love to look at, or eat!
Connecting with the garden offers our clients a different way to be with their experiences and themselves and it has been such a privilege to begin this journey with them. One of my favourite moments is always at the end of a session, when we take some time to reflect on the day’s activities, share stories related to horticulture from our diverse backgrounds, often accompanied by a cup of fresh mint tea.
I always keep in mind the importance of just ‘being’ in the space as well as the ‘doing’. Remembering to just sit under a tree for a while is still Horticultural Therapy and can bring such sanctuary.
Freedom From Torture’s botanical popup runs from the 24th - 29th August at 72 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London. Karen’s talk on how plants and gardening can change lives is free to book and is taking place on Friday 26th August at 6.30pm.
Karen Piper joined Freedom from Torture as the Horticultural Therapist in October 2021. On completing training with the Royal Horticultural Society and having practised as a Counselling Psychologist for over 15 years, Karen wanted to bring her two passions together to provide a space in which people could access nature as a pathway to healing. Karen grew up on a farm with parents who were avid gardeners, so an innate desire to spend more time outdoors, engaging with the earth, plants, and wildlife, has been increasingly influential in her therapeutic work.
Photo credits: Freedom From Torture
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