Horticultural therapy: Growing in the garden and in counselling

Horticulture has a lot to say about how plants grow and change, and therapy has a lot to say about how people grow and change. My experience is that these two worlds inform each other, which we might expect since both plants and people are organic in nature. For me, counselling or therapy is an organic process. 


If you’re wondering about counselling and a part of you knows that plants, or your garden, are important in some way then this article may be a way into knowing that your ‘blossoming’, an organic movement towards the next fullest version of yourself, can be invited forwards in counselling.

When we Google ‘horticultural therapy’ what we see is essentially a branch of occupational therapy which uses horticulture to invite growthful change in people. During my own training in this field, I became interested in the parallels between growthful change in the gardens I was working in and in the people or groups I was working with. 

I took many of these ideas with me through my own development as a counsellor. Here are just some of the ways in which I believe horticulture informs therapeutic change. 

The seed - intentionality and the season

You may have had the experience of sowing, say, eight bean seeds in modules, then waiting to find that only seven have germinated. How powerless we are in respect of this eighth seed! We may have an intention to germinate all eight, we make the growing environment just right, identical for each, and tend them with water and warmth. But each seed has its own intention and this will override our plan. This is even clearer if we sow outdoors too early or too late. The Earth herself has an intentionality, out pictured in each season, which quickly defeats what we’re attempting to do.

When I see a new client choosing counselling I see an intention to grow and change. They have waited, often perhaps some time and without knowing, for the ‘season’ to be ‘right’. Then arises an internal knowing, or some external circumstance, that says; ‘Now’s the time’. In counselling, we create the best environment we can for this internal movement to unfold. Counselling offers relational contact; an attuned, supportive ‘gardening’ of this organic shift which is already flowing.

This analogy with seeds also shows that, however well-meaning, we cannot ‘send’ someone for counselling or set up an appointment for them without risking being misattuned to their internal process. The germination, that initial, often painful breaking through our usual exterior can only happen from within. 

Seedlings - regular contact

My experience is that, in counselling, weekly sessions are a good way to begin. This is a way to be alongside the tender green shoots of change which establishes a supportive working relationship. A ‘therapy contract’ (which is a clarification of what my client is ‘growing into’ or ‘becoming next’ in this period of change) often emerges. We may not see clearly at first, so this initial work may be about understanding what is now ready to ‘take root’ and present itself into the world.

In the garden, as seedlings mature, we need to tend them less and less frequently as their own internal energetics and resilience become established. Similarly in counselling, as our work becomes established, it often seems natural to consider moving to fortnightly, three-weekly or ad hoc sessions. 

Growing on - physis in action

Transactional Analysis (or ‘TA’) is a powerful set of models which sets out to describe how we develop as individuals and how we can invite therapeutic change. TA refers to the concept of physis as that internal tendency within each of us to change and grow.

Our internal physis is operating all the time, not just during each one-hour counselling session. We grow and change ‘all week’ just like our maturing plants out in the garden. Counselling doesn’t ‘change someone’ but in a counselling relationship, our ever-present physis can be encouraged and supported towards its natural outcome.

A key feature of physis is that it may not look like ‘normalisation’ (a ‘getting back to normal’) and it may not be ‘normative’ (leading us towards ‘what is expected’). It may be that an over-worked, tired, reactive and anxious client cannot ‘get back to’ their ‘normal’ working life through counselling; However, the newest next version of them, following a natural internal impulse, may root and unfold in a way which is a surprise to themselves, family or colleagues. 

Organic change ‘moves things on’. Seeds cannot ‘un-germinate’, plants cannot grow smaller, the garden fills. 

Autumn - perseverance

As counselling progresses the initial ‘heat’ of crisis or the ‘rawness’ of a situation can dissipate. At the same time a counselling relationship that was new and included a degree of uncertainty may now be established. It may even seem like the growthful change is somehow ‘stuck’ or elusive, and that session-by-session there isn’t the same ‘fire’ or momentum as when the work began.

Some people celebrate Lammas (the first day in August) as a time of seasonal shift from the fire and heat of summer into a time of quieter, slower change and an emerging bounty. In this season in the garden, we need to continue to weed, water and remain responsive to the (now less crucial) needs of each plant. We may already have seen the ‘first fruits’ of our dedicated work. 

These are the ‘hard yards’ in the garden, or in counselling, where perseverance and 'staying with' the process can prepare us for a great harvest. It’s important in this season not to extend our relationship so much that we ‘miss’ what’s really happening in sessions or in the garden, even if our time is spent in more reflective contact.

Endings - no rose garden

We might begin in counselling with a picture of becoming ‘sorted’ or ‘fixed’. In this image there is an idealised ‘endpoint’ at which we’ll somehow be ‘perfectly’ changed. Only on the front of a seed packet, or on TV, is every beetroot plant grown to the same height, in a straight line and weed-free! In reality, our produce is nibbled and irregular, and our wonky veg is just as interesting and wholesome.

Season follows season, and each season has its own ‘messy’ part. Within the mess is the message; the beginning of that which is next to out picture by our tending to it. The person-centred approach to counselling includes the idea that each of us is a ‘process, not a product’ which reminds us that organic change is never completed or perfected and that counselling cannot promise a ‘rose garden’ outcome.

By making genuine contact with each other the powerful intentionality within a garden space, and the readiness to attune to it that many gardeners bring, invites forwards something that could not have been out pictured by either one acting without the other. When the day is here, when the season offers this opening, this opportunity, we can take action in a way that invites forwards joy, beautiful imperfection and abundance.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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York, YO31
Written by Richard Kershaw, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor Reg. MBACP (Accred)
York, YO31

If you’re wondering about counselling and a part of you knows that plants, or your garden, are important in some way then I would say send me an email. I offer a first session without fee as a way to explore and, if I can't help, I can often suggest ways forward.

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