Caitriona Kelly

Introducing our Therapeutic Horticulturist, Caitriona Kelly

We are delighted to have added a full time therapeutic horticulturist to our team this year. The healing benefits of gardening are tangible and profound. It is a joy to be able to offer this amazing activity to those who need it. Caitriona will explain in her own words what Social and Therapeutic Horticulture is, and how she came to practice this unique therapeutic medium.

I started working with GIY as a social and therapeutic horticulturist in March of this year.  Social and therapeutic horticulture uses plants to enable people improve both physical and mental well-being, through a process of planned and facilitated programmes. It can be active, whereby individuals carry out gardening tasks, and it can be passive, as in the case of therapeutic and healing gardens. Settings for both, include rehabilitation hospitals, prisons, day care centres, psychiatric institutions and homes for the elderly.

My background is in community work and adult education, and as such, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a range of different groups including Travellers, asylum seekers, disabled adults, inner city women’s groups, Roma and Spanish Gypsies. I also have a passion for growing, and did my first course in horticulture in the RHS in 2001. Like many a soul before me, I washed up on the shores of north Leitrim in 2012 to do a full time year-long course in The Organic Centre. I later went on to study Social and Therapeutic Horticulture via Coventry University, and am now in the lucky position of being able to combine two passions, that of working with people, and with plants.  

 As a community worker, my approach has been grounded in community development principles, with empowerment, participation and meaningful dialogue essential precursors to both individual and collective change. This equally underpins my work as a therapeutic horticulturist. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationalist speaks of mutual dialogue being an essential component for meaningful engagement with people, along with a horizontal relationship and mutual trust. The role of the therapeutic horticulturist is manifold, but facilitating a group in such a way as to foster mutual trust and allow mutual dialogue emerge, is in my opinion, at its very core.

I first experienced the therapeutic power of growing my own vegetables, herbs and flowers in 2006, the year my father died. Propelled by grief, I turned to the back garden of my shared house in Drumcondra, where I pulled up a line of broken paving slabs on the south-facing side to reveal a compacted but humus-rich soil. I bought tomato plants and bamboo canes, setting them out in neat rows, unsure of the spacing, the depth, the nutrients they’d need, the support they’d require, and yet somehow, trusting. Trusting that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing, and that I’d know what to do when the time came. As the tomatoes grew, and my grief ebbed and flowed, I found myself pinching out the soft green tips nestled between the main stem and the lateral stem, the younger me with limited interest in gardening having absorbed this lesson from my father and squirrelling it away until the day I’d need it.