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Horticultural therapy uses activities like planting seeds, harvesting tomatoes or tending houseplants to help people work toward a variety of goals.

Some of Naomi Pierce’s plants soak up light from outside.  // Photo by Naomi Pierce.

By Sadie Fick

The onset of the cold and dark of winter is always tough, but this year it seems to loom, with the resurgence of the pandemic threatening to force us back into isolation. Fortunately, one of the things people turned to this spring can still help: plants.

“[Houseplants] make my space more calming and relaxing, especially given the world right now,” said fourth-year Western student Naomi Pierce. “It’s just kind of nice to have a little safe place, a little sanctuary of plants in my room to calm me down.”

Seeing plants while working can reduce stress and improve focus, said Gary Altman, the associate director of the horticultural therapy program at Rutgers University.

Horticultural therapy uses activities like planting seeds, harvesting tomatoes or tending houseplants to help people work toward a variety of goals.

“[Caring for plants can] provide a little bit of space to take your mind off of the thing that was stressing you out,” Altman said.

People can feel pride from successfully completing plant care tasks, said Erin Backus, acting president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

These aspects of tending to plants can be self-care in themselves, but identifying the needs of another living thing can also help people be more in touch with their own needs, Backus said.

Plants need water; should you take a break from work and fill your water bottle?

Sometimes plants need to be repotted; is the tension with your roommates something you can fix, or should you move?

Backus recommends peace lilies for people who want to give their plants lots of attention. If they aren’t watered frequently enough, they show it though extreme wilting; however, they can recover by thorough watering.

Naming a plant can strengthen a person’s connection with it, Backus said.

“To own it, to care for it, to name it, that’s a whole different [level of] benefit,” Backus said.

Altman said feeling a connection to plants and caring for them can also help people see outside of their bubble.

“When you recognize the needs and wants of others, even if it's a plant, it helps you to kind of learn that skill and apply it to different life situations, like your relationships with other people,”Altman said.

Getting connected to a plant can be risky, as many blame themselves if their plant dies. However, Altman sees plants dying as part of the learning process.

“You're probably gonna kill a number of plants before you get the hang of it or figure out the conditions of your [space],” Altman said.

Unlike people or pets, plants can also recover with a little help after being neglected, and if not, they can be replaced easily, Altman said.

Tatum Brown, owner of local flower shop Olio Flowers and Plants, said if the plants keep dying, experiment. Some plants will work for one person’s lifestyle and the space they have, and some won’t.

Brown recommends snake plants as an easy starter. They do well in high or low light, are good air purifiers, are nontoxic and can survive a long time without water.

When considering what plants to buy, Brown has three questions.

First, what is the space like in terms of light, humidity and temperature?

Second, how much work are you willing or able to put into taking care of the plant?

And third, what looks good?

To avoid going broke, Brown suggests starting small in two ways: the amount and size of the plants, as larger plants are more expensive.

Brown also said someone could start with a clipping from someone else’s plant or adopt the plant another person is struggling with.

This winter is shaping up to be a lonely one, so for people looking for ways to connect with others, sharing plants and tips could be the way to do so.


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