Learn Natural Healing Methods at North Carolina Botanical Garden

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North Carolina Botanical Garden’s therapeutic horticulture certification program began in 2021 and continues to grow

Horticulture students practicing
Students Cecily Horstman and Candace King use a roleplaying activity to practice as instructors.

By Brooke Spach

Digging your fingers into the soil, soaking up the sun and helping cultivate new plant life – gardening is good for the soul. Tuning into the healing properties of working in nature is the foundation of therapeutic horticulture, a practice that educators at North Carolina Botanical Garden have begun to train people in through its certification program.

“Therapeutic horticulture is basically when a trained professional uses plants and/or nature-based activities to work toward specific goals of the participants,” says Emilee Weaver, therapeutic horticulture program manager. The practice can look like anything from using tools to improve fine motor skills to helping individuals with disabilities find a sense of independence and accomplishment. “It’s an unassuming gateway that doesn’t look like treatment, so people are more willing to embrace it and connect with it,” she continues. “And all of a sudden they go, ‘Whoa, I’ve been treated.’”

Experts at NCBG have provided this therapy as a direct service since 1978, but the online and hybrid certification programs have just rolled out over the past two years to give more professionals the tools to integrate therapeutic horticulture into their work. The first-ever hybrid course started in August, and the inaugural graduating class of 15 students will receive their certifications in April. These students learn the material outside of class and then meet in person one Saturday each month to complete workshops or go on field trips, like to The UNC Farm at Penny Lane in Pittsboro.

Those in the online course – a collaboration with the NC State Extension Master Gardener Program – complete four six-week asynchronous classes at their own pace, typically between one to two years. The third and fourth courses are currently in development and will be offered for the first time this spring and fall, respectively.

“In just these two years since we’ve started, we’ve had 350 to 400 students go through our program, which is incredible, and I think that speaks to the flexible model that we have,” Emilee says.

UNC Farm at Penny Lane tour
The class took a field trip to tour The UNC Farm at Penny Lane.

One hybrid student, Candace King, is an Alamance County-based clinical social worker who’s learning to use therapeutic horticulture as a supplement to adolescent bereavement counseling. She’s able to introduce concepts like mindfulness and presence in a way that feels safe to grieving children through sensory exercises in a lively, colorful garden. The metaphors for life, death and rebirth that exist in nature are helpful tools, too.

“Something that’s been so fabulous about this course is seeing the work that’s happening in the community and then connecting with fellow students who are coming at this work from several different angles,” Candace says. “It’s really inspiring to see the niches that folks are exploring and the different strengths folks bring.”

The program is bringing people from all over the state – and the world (the online course has had students from 26 states and five countries) – to engage with how therapeutic horticulture can improve quality of life for so many people. If you’re looking to get your hands dirty, register for the 2023-24 hybrid course, which will run from August to May.

“What’s great about therapeutic horticulture is its accessibility,” Candace says. “Anybody can do it anywhere. All you need is a pot of dirt, and that can start your therapeutic relationship with nature.”


The timbers that make up the Coker Arboretum arbor, an iconic site in the heart of UNC’s campus, have not been replaced in 25 years and have begun to deteriorate. The goal for the renovation is to preserve the arbor’s character while ensuring its longevity with more durable building materials. The project will also improve accessibility with a new walkway on a sloping grade, parallel with Cameron Avenue. The renovation is tentatively set to be finished in December 2023 after the arbor’s vines are replanted.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation recently purchased 24.7 acres of land to increase the buffer between the Stillhouse Bottom Nature Preserve (a restricted-access natural area located south of campus off Mount Carmel Church Road) and surrounding hiking trails. Contributions from community members and conservation organizations played a big role in purchasing this land, along with a grant from the North Carolina Land and Water Fund. The foundation is still raising funds to support management of the newly acquired land. – by Sam Annetta

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Brooke Spach

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