If you appreciate the therapeutic and mental health benefits gardening can bring and want to share these benefits with others, consider a career as a horticultural therapist

As a horticultural therapist, or social and therapeutic horticulture practitioner, you'll use gardening, plants and horticulture to help individuals develop personally and socially, and to gain confidence, independence and a sense of well-being.

You'll work with a range of people who are disabled or disadvantaged by age, circumstance or ability. Your clients may include those recovering from illness, people with learning and behavioural difficulties and people with mental health issues, such as depression.

Responsibilities

As a horticultural therapist, you'll need to:

  • work with small groups of people or with individuals on a one-to-one basis, delivering individually-tailored social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) programmes
  • help your clients develop across physical, cognitive, social and emotional spectrums
  • using the passive qualities of nature, you'll provide levels of sensory stimulus and impact that help towards achieving positive outcomes
  • promote health and well-being, and provide outdoor activity and physical exercise in a supportive atmosphere
  • spend time planning and evaluating work
  • liaise with external statutory and voluntary services to provide a multidisciplinary, person-centred approach
  • use assessment methods and outcome measurement in order to record, monitor and evaluate individual achievements, which may include making initial assessments, planning daily tasks and supporting individuals, often using a diary system
  • carry out regular one-to-one appraisals, updates and reviews
  • maintain daily records, including job sheets, time sheets and individual portfolios of evidence of work
  • teach individuals horticultural tasks such as sowing seeds, setting out plants, planting out, lawn mowing, soil preparation and pruning
  • educate clients on safe use of tools and materials
  • help individuals record activities and achievements by writing simple summaries or drawing pictures
  • interact with individuals to develop confidence and self-esteem in their work
  • assist individuals to improve their social and practical horticulture skills
  • encourage individuals to gain pleasure from land use
  • closely observe individuals to monitor their progress
  • assess the effectiveness of individual programmes and adjust if necessary
  • liaise with other professionals, such as social workers and psychologists
  • carry out research on the effectiveness of horticultural therapy, often in cooperation with academics
  • manage staff and volunteers
  • devise and coordinate activity programmes and monitor budgets
  • raise funds and draw up detailed proposals for developing projects
  • promote gardening and horticulture to the general public, as part of Green Care, the conceptual framework of using other natural mediums for therapy.

Salary

  • Paid work can be very difficult to come by and there are more volunteering opportunities than paid roles.
  • If you can secure a paid role, your starting salary is likely to be in the region of £17,000 to £20,000.
  • Salaries at senior level/with experience, possibly with line management responsibilities, can range from £22,000 to £30,000.

Salaries vary between employers and sectors. There are no national scales and typically no fringe benefits.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours occasionally include regular extra hours. Some weekend or evening work may be expected.

Part-time work and career breaks are possible.

What to expect

  • Therapists work mainly in gardens and associated outbuildings.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is sometimes possible but is generally limited.
  • Vacancies are limited but potentially available in most areas of the country. Opportunities abroad are limited but openings may exist in the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
  • The role usually forms part of a multidisciplinary care team or involves working collaboratively with other stakeholders. The work can be emotionally stressful but also rewarding. Budgets are frequently limited and goals can be difficult to achieve.
  • Travel within a working day is occasional. Absence from home at night is uncommon.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following degree and HND subjects may increase your chances:

  • botany/plant science
  • education
  • horticulture
  • landscape architecture/design
  • occupational therapy
  • social work
  • psychology.

Horticultural therapy is usually taken up as a second career. Entrants often have experience in social work or social care, teaching, occupational therapy or nursing. Others may have a background in a horticulture discipline or extensive voluntary experience in horticultural activities.

Entry without a degree or HND is possible although employers are increasingly looking for multi-skilled professionals, who have a combination of experience and a formal qualification.

The charity Thrive offers a range of courses in STH, from one and two-day courses to longer accredited courses leading to a professional qualification.

Do your research before applying and check that courses meet your career development needs. Search postgraduate courses in horticulture.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not essential but relevant courses exist, such as a Masters in social and therapeutic horticulture.

You'll also need to pass a Disclosure and Barring Service check if you're working with children.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a strong interest in and aptitude for horticulture
  • excellent interpersonal and communication skills
  • patience, understanding, tolerance and the ability to work with a range of people
  • analytical skills and the ability to make accurate assessments
  • the ability to motivate and encourage others
  • the capacity to use your initiative and work independently
  • good organisational skills
  • an aptitude for leadership and also for collaborative working.

Work experience

Advertised posts almost always require horticultural experience and a recognised qualification such as a national certificate in horticulture, a degree or a foundation degree. You should aim to build up work experience with children or adults in caring situations and this can be done in a voluntary capacity in special schools or hospitals.

You may be able to volunteer with Thrive if you live near their gardens at Battersea Park in South London, Beech Hill in Reading or Kings Heath Park in Birmingham. You can also contact the organisation to access a database of garden projects in the UK, which may offer voluntary opportunities.

Information on STH in Scotland and a directory of therapeutic gardens in the country is provided by the Scottish charity Trellis.

Employers

Horticultural therapists are employed by Thrive to work on its garden projects.

You may also find work in:

  • hospitals and rehabilitation centres
  • day, adult and social education centres
  • specialist colleges for those who are physically disabled or hard of hearing
  • residential homes and centres run by social services
  • health authorities
  • charities and voluntary organisations
  • prisons
  • schools and specialist nurseries and colleges
  • parks
  • demonstration or community gardens and city farms.

Becoming a self-employed freelance therapist may be possible, but currently, opportunities for working in this way are limited. It may also be possible to combine horticultural therapy with a related role, such as occupational therapy.

Look for job vacancies at:

Job advertisements may use a variety of other titles such as technical instructor, project worker or project manager when referring to horticultural therapy posts.

Competition for jobs is fierce and few posts are advertised so it may be worth making speculative applications.

Professional development

The extent and quality of training largely depends on the employing organisation. Most training is on the job according to your needs.

Thrive offers bespoke training and runs short, focused courses in areas such as helping people with learning disabilities, special educational or mental health needs, and working with older people with conditions such as dementia.

Coventry University offers a Professional Development Diploma in partnership with Thrive and Pershore College, and an MSc Social and Therapeutic Horticulture - suitable if you're already working in horticulture or therapy, to further develop your skills.

See Trellis for information on horticultural courses, news and events in Scotland.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) offers qualifications in horticulture ranging from courses for beginners to qualifications for experienced professionals. To obtain the RHS Master of Horticulture award, MHort (RHS), it's essential that you have at least four years of full-time work experience in a professional horticulture environment - one year of which should be completed in a supervisory role or in a position of responsibility - and a Level 3 qualification in horticulture.

Career prospects

Since horticultural therapy is a second career in many cases, therapists have often had a career in a related area such as occupational therapy, horticulture or teaching.

Your initial promotion is likely to be to a supervisory position, though to achieve this you may need to move to a different employer. There may also be opportunities to become involved in research projects alongside your therapeutic work.

Obtaining a professional horticultural qualification, such as the MHort (RHS), may aid your progression as this indicates you've attained an excellent level of horticultural knowledge and practical skills.

Professional membership options are provided by the Chartered Institute of Horticulture and the Association of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Practitioners. See websites for details of membership eligibility and the benefits of joining.