Notes from a small conference

Ann Stow
5 min readJul 22, 2022

A very basic overview of Horticulture for Health (+ research)

The elephant outside the room” 

Elephant, very outside the room. Photo by Kai Pütter on Unsplash

My musings on #HorticultureforHealth start with this short overview from a small conference with a big message.

I am increasingly drawn into discussions about, and interested in, developing people’s understanding about the connection between horticulture and health. From 1:1 therapy for a range of physical and psychological benefits, through community gardens, social prescribing, and woodland walks, into strategic policy and planning considerations.

The health benefits of being outdoors, having sight of a green space through a window, even images of nature / woodland / trees and gardens are well documented and don’t need my contribution here (although I may wander into this in a later musing, especially the preventative and social benefits from better planning and education).

What has struck me, probably more than anything is the breadth of potential benefits to individuals, groups, communities, and society from engagement in horticultural environments, and the role that government (central and local) has to play in consideration of such health benefits. This was borne out in spades (pardon the pun) at the RHS Health and Horticulture conference.

A 2016 study by the Kings Fund found “…wide effects on various forms of health, from physical health (due to the labour and effort involved, which includes walking in large public gardens), mental health and wellbeing (possibly through relaxation, reflection and stress reduction) to resilience and recovery from illness and palliative care (for example, via hospice and hospital gardens). These effects can accrue directly or indirectly, and to individuals or wider populations.” (Kings Fund, 2016)

Like many other aspects of community and social health and belonging, this appreciation and development must come from individuals upwards, community groups, local charities and forums, through local councils, community health, educators, and forward-thinking planning (developers with a green conscience, not just a focus on the bottom line). But in tandem it must be driven from the top — strategic decisions on health, planning and policy guidance on improving opportunities for social reform and acknowledgement of the benefits of green space in all parts of life.

This move can support the ‘levelling up’ agenda; access to green space can help reduce the ‘shaming disparity between the length of life in different areas of the country’ (Thompson, 2018). There are many cost benefits too (I don’t like drawing this down to £’s, but I know this resonates with a lot of people) — for example — “Increasing access to parks and open spaces could reduce NHS costs of treating obesity by more than £2 billion (Groundwork, no date).” (Kings Fund, 2016)

Communal green space, water and places to sit, physical & mental wellbeing. Photo by Lison Zhao on Unsplash

More needs to be done to educate our medical professions, developers, policy makers and planners; horticulturists and associated researchers need to align their language, learning to communicate in a way that is understood not simply heard. And those we would educate need to appreciate that not everything can, or should, be measured. That the depth of nuance and understanding brought about by effective qualitative research is solid evidence; there is little space here for randomised control trials. There’s no room in many things for RCT, but that’s another paper 

That said, there is a dearth of research into social and community benefits of gardening, walking in the park, communicating across an allotment. There are no studies of the longitudinal effects of horticultural therapy individual or group, or green prescribing (to my knowledge, please correct me!). I am personally interested in the social psychological and linguistic effects on communities and groups; understanding how horticultural activities effect belonging, identity, communication and behaviour fascinates me — I see little work in this space, although there are some great case studies emerging, and I am personally keen to engage in this. Personally, I see real utility here for exploring Social Identity Theory, and Social Connection Theory — where I see all 3 of Baumeister’s dimensions as important, but especially relational, and collective.

Early education demystifies and engages :-) Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash

What people tell us is important; the power of the narrative or story that people relate provides a sense of emotion and connection, lived experience spills into behaviour and attitude throughout life and needs to be understood as something which links all elements of a person’s life. Honest and effortful listening is needed to derive the true meaning in people’s words, and the words they select to convey their experience are crucial and meaningful and should also be considered. This is the case whether we are working alongside someone planting seeds, walking together, or sharing a coffee and cake after digging over a vegetable bed.

It is time for the broad benefits to be recognised; it is a hugely broad church which spans central government to individuals, it also challenges some of the current ‘way we do things’ in terms of planning, social prescribing, education, research, and development.

There are a thousand (more) disparate individuals, charities (check out Thrive and Highground but there are loads more!), and groups doing amazing things in communities, social & therapeutic horticulture, research, challenging planning and more. There is a need for a cohering group here which I think exists, to provide a consolidating voice and to be a focal point for the movement and local change agents, to nationally raise the profile of the social, psychological, and physical benefits of every element of Horticulture for Health.

Is it a big job? Yep! Too big for a single, central co-ordinating team? Maybe? Is anyone willing to take the lead? Not sure if any existing group has the time / bandwidth / funding to do this (maybe someone could help me understand this bit?)

It’s a big challenge, which could derive huge benefits to our society — how can it not be worth it?

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash



Ann Stow

Passionate about making organisations more human - one conversation at a time.