Dirt (Yes, DIRT!) Therapy :: Growing Plants, Growing Ourselves

Written by Chad Dally

Fingers combing through black soil, connecting one to the earth . . .

Bright pinks and purples of flowers arranged neatly in a vase or pressed between pages . . . 

The sweet crunch of snap peas carefully cultivated from a tiny seed . . .

Many of us have experienced the joy of growing our own flowers or food, either inside or outside our homes or in a raised bed at a community garden. We know the satisfaction of slicing into a homegrown tomato and tasting the sweet fruits of our labor. We appreciate the stress relief, expanding our cultivation skills, and the lessons the natural world imparts on us.

All of that involves different kinds of science . . .

The biology and botany of the plants that grow, yes, but also the social science of how we grow and improve our well-being through horticulture.

A new program through the Marathon County University of Wisconsin–Extension office aims to spread the love — and some dirt — around the Wausau area through partnerships that approach horticulture as therapy.

Brianna Wright hasn’t been on the job long . . . She started as UW–Extension’s horticulture educator in May 2018. But she hit the ground (er, dirt) running as she began to develop a therapeutic horticulture program in Marathon County. {I can’t promise there won’t be more bad gardening puns!}

Marathon County UW–Extension Horticulture Educator Brianna Wright.

She came to the position after more than 10 years in Wyoming, where she first earned a master’s degree in botany from the University of Wyoming and then joined its Life Sciences program as an educator. But she has Central Wisconsin roots . . .

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2005.

Wright’s therapeutic horticulture initiative is not to be confused with — but easily could be — horticultural therapy. Both approaches are plant-based: getting people actively involved in the art and science of growing fruits, veggies, flowers, and ornamental plants. The therapeutic element involves not only the health benefits of physical work, but also placing that experience in a broader framework of learning, discussion, journaling, and other activities — both solitary and interpersonal — that improve cognitive, social, emotional, and even spiritual well-being.

Horticultural therapy ties that to specific goals in an individual’s established treatment, rehabilitation, or vocational plan, while therapeutic horticulture is a more passive practice that can help support goals of other, broader programs with groups of people, but isn’t tied to any specific plan.

Horticulture has proven benefits to our well-being, as many of us can attest, whether we’ve grown a single plant or filled an entire garden with greenery. But the experience benefits different people differently, Wright said.

For some, it can be cognitive therapy: digging in the dirt conjures up treasured memories or even memories long-forgotten.

For others, it can provide stress relief by simply slowing down to plant a seed or weed the rows.

For still others, it can be emotional and social therapy by connecting with other people and reconnecting with nature by becoming a more active participant in the natural world.

According to Wright:

“We want to provide support for people in the community who need it. But overall, we want to build a healthier county and really get people more in touch with nature.”

After 4 months of planning and networking, Wright has already completed a five-class program this summer at the Community Corner Clubhouse, which helps adults with persistent mental illness and alcohol and other drug abuse issues. Her program included:

  • Herb gardening
  • Small-container gardening
  • Flower pressing and arranging
  • Botanical observations and journaling

She’s also working on a plan with the Marathon County Jail and juvenile detention facilities that offers inmates a positive activity — learning about and practicing horticulture — with rehabilitative aspects and even vocational possibilities that could help participants land a job after being released.

Wright has discussed other potential partnerships with North Central Health Care’s Lakeside Recovery program staff and with Jeff Campo, who started Mending One’s Self and Inspiring Change (MOSAIC) in April 2018 to provide a safe space for people struggling with addiction.

Brianna Wright (standing center), horticulture educator with Marathon County UW–Extension, talks with members and staff of the Community Corner Clubhouse​ during one of five therapeutic horticulture classes at the Clubhouse in summer 2018. Extension’s initiative aims to improve the cognitive, social, emotional, and even vocational well-being among participants by working together in the dirt to learn about horticulture and grow their own food, plants, and flowers.

One of the nice things about horticulture is that you really don’t need a lot of space, and that’s true for therapy programs as well. Locally, Wright’s programs could use existing community gardens and/or the possibility of new gardens. She’s in talks about a dedicated space for therapeutic gardens somewhere at the corner of Grand Avenue and Thomas Street in Wausau, the former site of Vino Latte.

When Wright reached out to staff at the Community Corner Clubhouse, they were interested for a couple of reasons, said Referral Coordinator Mike Frankel.

  • One, everything they do at the Clubhouse involves evidence-based practices — ones with some backing to prove it works — and therapeutic horticulture is a proven practice.
  • Two, he said, it’s a practice that aligns with the Clubhouse’s goal of fostering a sense of community among its members, who work side-by-side voluntarily with Clubhouse staff and each other to learn life skills and build their sense of self-worth and confidence.

Clubhouse staff meet with about 25 members per day, and a total of 10 to 14 people participated in some or all of the five classes with Wright, Frankel added:

“This was something they could do as a group, have a chance to take something home and get their hands dirty, but there’s also the educational component. They can engage in something they can complete and see that when you take care of it, you get an end result and see something pretty cool, and that’s where the therapy comes into play, and that helps with mental health.”

Wright is working with some of the UW–Extension’s master gardeners to implement the initiative, but the bigger the number of partnerships, the more help she’ll need.


So, if your thumbs are even a little green and you’re interested in volunteering — or interested in working with Wright to incorporate therapeutic horticulture into an existing program — you can help this new initiative to . . . {ahem} GROW!

Simply call the Extension office toll-free at 1-800-236-0153 to LETTUCE know. {Yep — I’m done with the CORNY gardening puns now.}

Chad Dally - MCPL - Library SpecialistChad Dally
Library Specialist  |  Marathon County Public Library

Chad Dally is a library specialist with the Marathon County Public Library, where he’s worked since 2012. He splits his time at the library between reference and programming, and generally prefers to read nonfiction over fiction. He’s heard chickens are smart, but the small brood he keeps at home provides evidence to the contrary.  Email Chad Dally

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