If you love gardening and appreciate the therapeutic and mental health benefits it can bring, a career as a horticultural therapist would suit you

As a horticultural therapist, generally called social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) practitioners within the field, you'll use gardening, plants and horticulture to help individuals develop.

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 or dementia.

Horticultural therapists work with clients to promote health and well-being. Through individually-tailored STH programmes and with caring and observant encouragement, you'll help clients develop across physical, cognitive, social and emotional spectrums.

Horticultural therapy is used in social, vocational and therapy programmes, providing outdoor activity and physical exercise in a supportive atmosphere.

Additionally, horticultural therapy makes use of the passive qualities of nature to provide levels of sensory stimulus and impact that help towards achieving positive outcomes.

Horticultural therapy is an emerging profession that forms a large and culturally significant part of green care, the conceptual framework of using other natural mediums for therapy, such as care farming and ecotherapy.

Responsibilities

As a horticultural therapist, you will work with small groups of people or with individuals on a one-to-one basis. Typically, you'll spend three hours planning and evaluating work, and five hours working directly with clients to enable them to access horticulture as a therapeutic medium.

Tasks include:

  • liaising with external statutory and voluntary services to provide a multidisciplinary, person-centred approach;
  • using 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;
  • carrying out regular one-to-one appraisals, updates and reviews;
  • maintaining daily records, including job sheets, time sheets and individual portfolios of evidence of work;
  • advising on equipment and techniques to enable disabled people to access horticulture;
  • designing and implementing person-centred horticultural programmes for people of all ages with disabilities;
  • ensuring activities match the content of nationally-recognised awards;
  • planning each day's work with individuals;
  • setting tasks according to the physical and mental needs and abilities of individuals;
  • teaching individuals horticultural tasks such as sowing seeds, setting out plants, planting out, lawn mowing, soil preparation and pruning;
  • educating clients to use tools and materials safely;
  • helping individuals record their activities and achievements by writing simple summaries or drawing pictures;
  • interacting with individuals to develop confidence and self-esteem through their work;
  • assisting individuals to improve their social and practical horticulture skills;
  • encouraging individuals to gain pleasure from land use;
  • closely observing individuals to monitor their progress;
  • assessing the effectiveness of individual programmes;
  • adjusting activities to make them more effective;
  • taking part in discussions with other professionals, such as social workers and psychologists;
  • carrying out research on the effectiveness of horticultural therapy, often in cooperation with academics;
  • managing staff and volunteers;
  • devising and coordinating activity programmes and monitoring budgets;
  • raising funds and drawing up detailed proposals for developing projects;
  • promoting gardening and horticulture to the general public.

Salary

You need to be aware that there are more volunteering opportunities than paid roles. If you can find a paid role then:

  • Starting salaries are 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 dress code is generally informal as you need to work outdoors.
  • 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 or 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.

Check out courses in social and therapeutic horticulture (STH). The charity Thrive offers a range of courses, from the one-day workshop, Step into Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH), which is aimed at those considering horticultural therapy as a career, to longer, accredited courses leading to a professional qualification.

Do your research before applying and check that courses meet your career development needs. For a list of courses in horticulture see the Lantra CourseFinder.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not essential.

You will also need to pass a Disclosure and Barring Service check if working with children.

Skills

You 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;
  • the ability to motivate and encourage others;
  • the ability to use your initiative and work independently.

Work experience

You may be able to volunteer with Thrive if you live near their gardens at Battersea Park in South London and Beech Hill, near Reading. They are also redeveloping park areas in Kings Heath Park, Birmingham and Saltwell Park, Gateshead as part of a programme for recovery and rehabilitation of ex-forces personnel.

Thrive also holds the national database of around 900 garden projects in the UK and can advise on projects in your area, 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.

You should aim to build up work experience with children or adults in caring situations. If you do not have a horticultural qualification, voluntary work in special schools or hospitals with a therapist may help.

Advertised posts almost always require horticultural experience and a recognised qualification such as a national certificate in horticulture, a degree or a foundation degree.

Employers

Horticultural therapy continues to develop in the UK. Horticultural therapists are employed by the charity Thrive to work in 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.

A few horticultural therapists become self-employed freelance therapists. Currently, however, opportunities for working in this way are extremely limited.

It may be possible to combine horticultural therapy with a related role, such as occupational therapy.

There may be opportunities for employment overseas, for example in the USA, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thrive can provide useful addresses and links.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies. 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.

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

The charity also offers bespoke training and can tailor courses to meet requirements.

You could take a course leading to a qualification in social and therapeutic horticulture. Coventry University offers a Professional Development Diploma in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in partnership with Thrive and Pershore College.

Coventry University also offers an MSc Social and Therapeutic Horticulture if you are already working in horticulture or therapy to further develop your skills in social and therapeutic horticulture. For a list of courses in social and therapeutic horticulture see Grow.

Information on horticultural courses in Scotland and details of horticultural news and events are offered by the Scottish charity Trellis.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) offers qualifications in horticulture ranging from courses for beginners to qualifications for experienced professionals. The Master of Horticulture is the RHS degree-level qualification and holders of the award may use the designation MHort (RHS) after their name.

Career prospects

Horticultural therapy is frequently a second career and therapists have often had a career in a related area such as occupational therapy, horticulture or teaching.

Initial promotion may be to supervisory positions, which may require moving to a different employer. There may also be opportunities to become involved in research projects alongside your therapeutic work.

To improve your chances of promotion, you could work towards horticultural qualifications such as those provided by the RHS. Professional membership options are provided by the Chartered Institute of Horticulture; see their website for details of membership eligibility and the benefits of joining.

You could also consider joining the Association of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Practitioners, an organisation that supports those working in the field of social and therapeutic horticulture.

If you wish to proceed to the RHS Master of Horticulture award, MHort (RHS), it is essential to have at least four years of full-time work experience in a professional horticulture environment (one of which should be in a position of responsibility) and a Level 3 qualification in horticulture.

The MHort (RHS) is one of the highest qualifications that can be achieved in the profession and tests horticultural knowledge, understanding and practical skills.