Using Horticultural Therapy for UW-Extension Programs

image of young men gardeningSituation

Extension educators and volunteers are increasingly involved in garden-based community projects with non-traditional populations, such as elders, veterans, and incarcerated, as well as individuals and groups with emotional/physical/learning disabilities and sensory limitations.  

  • Successful garden-based projects with these populations require:
    • Incorporating information from outside typical agricultural commodity resources, such as medical and therapy communities.
    • Adopting additional program planning and design for content delivery and evaluation.
    • Integrating appropriate language to communicate outputs and impacts, especially as it relates to human well-being.


  • To apply principles and practices of horticultural therapy to extension garden-based projects to improve experience and outcomes of participants and to better measure and communicate impacts on health, environment, and communities as related to UW-Extension’s educational priorities.

Horticultural Therapy

Horticultural therapy

the engagement of a client in horticultural activities facilitated by a trained therapist to achieve specific and documented treatment goals.

[American Horticultural Therapy Association]

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Well-Being Defined

Dr. Darcie Olson, Madison College

Well-being has most often been described as the absence of poor health, but it can be better described being able to engage in activities that bring a person satisfaction

a good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity; welfare


The concept of well-being is also included as part of the USDA’s federal guidelines for sustainable design practices.

In addition to environmental functions, sustainable landscapes provide restorative value and health benefits to the user. Outdoor physical activity contributes to overall health and can help people control obesity and associated chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and high blood pressure. Outdoor spaces that encourage social interaction can promote social connection among site users, which is important for human health, while providing quiet outdoor spaces for site users to enjoy. Moreover, such features can enhance employee morale and retention.

[Guidance for Federal Agencies on Sustainable Practices for Designed Landscapes (PDF)]

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Healing Garden Design

Stenzel Healing Garden, Portland, Oregon



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Strategies for Engaging Non-Gardeners

by Mike Maddox

inmates gardening

For 6 years I was part of a group who worked with incarcerated individuals from the county jail in a half acre community garden.  I can admit now, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.  We made lessons ahead of time and planned all these activities to do over the course of several days.  When it came time for the first day of the program the group of guys came out and things were fine.  The next day, a different group of guys were sent out so we had to repeat the lesson.  On day 3, we were back to the first group and it was raining, so we had to scramble to find something to do.  We quickly learned that sometimes a successful garden program cannot be dictated by a syllabus! For this program we quickly course corrected.  We realized this program was not necessarily about the participants learning everything there is to know about a carrot, but, instead, to find gardening to be a positive experience.  Instead of focusing on lessons on soil fertility, we focused on completing tasks on time, working as groups, and using respectful language throughout the program.  The master gardener volunteers and educators involved stopped lecturing, and instead began role modeling behaviors expected in the garden.  We DID teach when the opportunities came up!  We had to explain how things went in the ground, what were weeds and what weren’t, how to water properly, when to harvest.  And we celebrated those milestones as we went along through the growing season.  

As I look back on these experiences of using authentic gardening to engage our audiences, I realize we were using many principles and practices one would use in a horticultural therapy program.  That is, we used the process of gardening to engage our audience to reach the desired goals.  This didn’t involve making copies of handouts, lectures, or quizzes.  It was us working alongside the participating individuals so they could be successful in the garden.  And along with that we saw them not only learning about the garden, and plants, and bugs, but also watching their confidence and aspirations grow and what they wanted their new future to be.

“Authentic Gardening” as I’ve come to call it, can be just as educational as any lecture I can give.   And participants in your programs can come with a wide range of gardening experiences to draw upon, including people who may never have gardened before.  Keep the following ideas in mind while you’re engaging them in the planting, picking, watering, and all the other stuff that goes on in the garden.  They can be useful ideas for any new gardener you encounter.

The following is adapted from Challenges, Alternatives, and Educational Strategies in Reaching Limited Income Audiences, in the Journal of Extension:

  • Use fun and interactive hands-on lessons. Gardening is full of these types of learning opportunities.  But your gardeners may be wary of the soils or insects, so keep gloves and tools on hand to help them ease into things.   
  • Limit the use of lectures.  Demonstrate how to do the task correctly and explain why it needs to be done.  Explain more if they ask to know more.  And keep the language simple– save the scientific names for later.
  • Listen to clients and getting to know them personally.  Name tags for both cultivars and participants can be useful to make this connection.  Also, in addition to knowing the growing conditions for the plants, take some time to learn something about the participant– Have they gardened before?  What do they like to eat from the garden? How interested are they in gardening?  
  • Involve clients in the lesson.  Give participants options and choice in choosing what needs to get done that day.
  • Create a non-threatening and welcoming learning environment.  Plants may be okay with your language and tone, but other gardeners may find you abrasive.  Watch not only what you say but how you say it.  Reinforce a welcoming environment with friendly signage in the garden.
  • Use information sharing sessions to create a dialogue with the participants.  When learning moments occur in the garden, include everybody.  Talk about how the day went, what was learned, and what was found in the garden.
  • Use quick and easy hands-on gardening tasks (30 minutes or less).  Keep it fun but not dragging things on too long.  
  • Use lessons that encourage small changes that are practical.  Success in the garden doesn’t happen overnight.  Keep encouraging participants through the ups and downs of the garden season and celebrate the small milestones.
  • Split large groups into small (10 or less) working groups for delivering the training session.  Keep it personal by keeping groups on the small side.  Recruit other gardeners as back-up in case you need them.
  • Use music when teaching physical activity. Music can help with mindfulness in the garden.  Find a station everyone can agree on or consider taking turns choosing the station. 
  • Distribute useful gardening tools or certificates as incentives for participants to practice what they learn at home. Ultimately we want the participants to be able to do this on their own.  Give them the tools and confidence to do so!

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Lifelong Gardening

Please visit the Lifelong Gardening Page for more information regarding adaptable tools and techniques to use in the garden

WATCH Gardening for Life

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WATCH Examples of Gardening Programs Utilizing Horticultural Therapy Principles

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Additional Resources

Goals for Master Gardener Volunteers and UW-Extension Educators

  • Utilize research relating to the impacts of plants, green-space, and nature on human health and well-being.
  • Design and implement garden-based education projects which are beneficial to specified populations.
  • Document and communicate outcomes of garden-based education programs.

Training and Support

  • Workshop Incorporating Horticultural Therapy into Extension Programs
  • One-on-one program design 

Mike’s Background

Programming History:

Work history includes one-shot and multi-session garden-based projects with a variety of populations in different settings:

  • Youth
  • Adults
  • Elders

  • Veterans
  • Incarcerated
  • Cognitive/Intellectual limitations
  • Physical/Emotional disabilities
  • Sensory impairments

  • Community gardens
  • Botanical gardens
  • Hospital / health care settings
  • Community settings
  • Schools


  • Horticulture Educator, UW-Extension, 2001-2012
  • Director of Education, Rotary Botanical Gardens, 2003-2010
  • Director, UW-Extension Master Gardener Program, 2012-present


  • MS Horticulture, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • BS Biology (Botany emphasis), University of Northern Iowa
  • AHTA accredited certificate in horticultural therapy from HTI
  • Additional college credit in horticultural therapy from University of Minnesota (5 credits) and Colorado State University (10 credits)
  • Additional college credit in education from University of Northern Iowa, including work with special needs populations and field experience in alternative high school.
  • ISA Certified Arborist

Publications, Posters, and Presentations

  • Gardening with Jail Inmates (poster), Extension Urban Conference, Kansas City, 2006
  • Gardening with Jail Inmates (presentation), Correctional Educator Association, 2009
  • Elements of a Healing Garden (webinar), (class) University of Minnesota, 2010
  • Starting a Community Garden, UW-Extension, 2011
  • Elements of a Healing Garden (webinar), Horticulture, History & Health, Level 2 MG Training,
  • Introduction to Horticultural Therapy (presentation), Rock, Racine/Kenosha, Fond du Lac, and Milwaukee Counties, 2012
  • Adaptive Gardening Techniques (presentation), Day in the Garden, Fond du Lac County, 2015

Memberships and Affiliations

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