Laura Rumpf bent into the herb garden to rub a fuzzy sage leaf. “Here, have a sniff. What does it remind you of?”

Thanksgiving, of course. “Everyone says Thanksgiving!” she cheered. “This is one that really seems to elicit a lot of memories.”

Giant arborvitae trees flank Maude’s Garden on Seattle’s First Hill, muffling the hum of city traffic for this tiny therapeutic oasis. Rumpf, a horticultural therapist, points out fragrant spearmint, chives, chamomile and thyme, then pops an orange nasturtium flower in her mouth. 

Zing! It’s sweet and peppery and wild. 

Every week, groups of adults with dementia and their caregivers filter into Maude’s Garden — a public space opened last year — to socialize and relax. They also taste, smell and touch plants. 

“It’s really the plants that are the therapists,” said Rumpf, who helped conceive of the garden and is a garden consultant there. “Even if somebody can’t necessarily name what it is they’re smelling, the body somehow remembers.”

For people with dementia, using plants to reminisce might lead them to tell stories and share memories, an important part of staying connected with loved ones and validating their identity. As the late neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote, “In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.” 


Caring for plants, it turns out, can help us care for ourselves. 

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Amid the isolation of the pandemic, roadblocks to traditional therapy and deeper desires for connection with the natural world, the healing experience of gardening has taken on new importance for people with a range of psychological stressors. The Seattle Times spoke with several experts about why botanical experiences keep people grounded and the range of biological, social and psychological benefits that come from planting and digging in dirt.

Why gardening?

The therapeutic nature of gardens traces back centuries, though in the United States, some of the earliest cases for gardening date to the 1800s, when trailblazers in the field of psychiatry began recording links between horticulture and mental health.

In general, gardens have been shown to make people happier by increasing the feel-good hormone, serotonin. There’s an abundance of scientific evidence that spending time in gardens has several other physical and mental health benefits, too, like reducing stress and blood pressure. Today, many hospitals, rehabilitation centers and group homes and community centers plant gardens for their calming qualities. 

Similar to a hike in the woods, gardening can help quiet intrusive thoughts and foster a sense of connectedness. But it can also be used for more targeted skill building, which is one reason why horticultural therapy was professionalized as a therapeutic practice in the 1970s. There are just over 200 registered horticultural therapists nationwide, said Derrick Stowell, immediate past president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association and administrator at the University of Tennessee Gardens Education and Horticultural Therapy Program.


“There’s often a long wait to get into treatment. And the fact is, people need resources now,” he said. It isn’t a replacement for other important forms of care, he said, but, “horticultural therapy is one of the ways I think we can provide some services to folks.”

Horticultural therapy involves cultivating and growing plants with specific therapeutic goals in mind. Tending to plants and watching them thrive is one way to build self-esteem, Stowell said; for instance, horticultural therapists use gardening to help neurodiverse folks build confidence or give people with certain physical disabilities agency and a sense of accomplishment. 

Sometimes the therapy involves creating the “garden” indoors. Rumpf has worked with many clients who use wheelchairs or walkers and struggle to get outside. “So I bring the garden in,” said Rumpf, who now lives in Maine but often visits Seattle. It’s easy enough to fill planters with soil and seeds from the comfort of a kitchen table.

The therapy can also include mindfulness practices and finding ways to shift focus away from negative thoughts and emotions. In his practice, Stowell said, people often learn life lessons – especially those with a brown thumb. 

“What can we do differently next time?” he’ll ask his clients when their plants wither. And how does their work in the garden connect to their own lives? They’ll see “pretty clearly at this point,” he said, “that maybe I could do a little bit more to care for myself.”

Psychological growth:

At her townhouse on Beacon Hill, Dawnn Meiers snakes a hose through her bathroom window. It’s time to water trays of seedlings and potted plants bathing in the sun on her narrow fourth-floor balcony. 


It’s a far cry from the hobby farm she and her family owned in Oregon before moving to Seattle a few years ago. But her dense urban neighborhood hasn’t discouraged her. She turned her garage into a plant incubator. And, a few months ago, Meiers secured a small P-Patch in the Delridge neighborhood. 

Herbs she grows — borage and lavender, for example — are sold off or given for free to garden shares and food forests. She grows vegetables for her family, too. 

Meiers is a licensed psychologist. She stepped back from her clinical practice a few years ago, though, and in the years since, experienced firsthand the kind of stressors she used to navigate with her patients, who were mostly mothers and women in caregiving roles. When schools closed during the pandemic, Meiers became a full-time caregiver for her neurodiverse teen. The move to Seattle was rocky, as was the incredible isolation of living in a new city shut down by pandemic restrictions.

Gardening became her refuge. “There’s an ancestral and cultural and spiritual layer to growing,” she said, noting her family has a history of farming. She noticed physical benefits: She started tracking her blood pressure and watched it drop. She began sleeping better. Her muscles loosened. And there’s the psychological benefit, too, she said, of “connecting with something larger than myself, especially in the chaos of these times.”

Before the pandemic, she was always on the edge of doing things other therapists weren’t as interested in trying, she said, like community outreach and education. She has a bit more clarity now, she said, about how to meld her skills as a psychologist with these kinds of passions.

She’s in the early stages of developing a nature-based practice, for instance, where she would help people brainstorm ways to engage with nature on their own. The goal, she said, would be stress reduction and building resiliency skills. 


“Connecting with nature and particularly gardening has been so therapeutic and such a lifeline for me that I just felt compelled to get back into practice,” she said. 

Designed to heal:

Margaret “Peach” Jack, in a moment of serendipity, was marveling at a sprawling trail of peach-colored roses in Maude’s Garden. “Isn’t that gorgeous? This one’s a climber so it goes way up,” said Jack, the landscape designer behind the space.

The flowers were likely planted several years ago, she said, when the garden space was part of an old parsonage, and they typically bloom from spring until fall. “As long as we’re maintaining them they will continue to produce.” 

Nature metaphors abound in horticultural therapy, said Jack, who, in addition to working in landscape design, is a registered horticultural therapist. One time, when working with a group of female veterans, Jack remembers asking, “How do you redefine yourself in this new season of life?” 

“I really love the metaphorical part of it,” she said. 

But Jack is also keen on the concrete details that make such gardens therapeutic. In designing Maude’s Garden, for instance, she mapped out circular walkways, so people don’t run into dead ends. Tall arborvitae give the sense of being safely enclosed. Interrupted sightlines create feelings of whimsy and that moving through the garden might lead to discovery.  

Similar gardens exist in Seattle, Jack said, but they’re private or dedicated to specific patient groups. Maude’s Garden, which is located at the University of Washington’s Memory Hub near the Frye Art Museum, is open to the public several days each week.

“Really,” Jack said, “there’s a need for more.”

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times