Note: the following article was originally written in French, and can be viewed in French here.
Let’s explore horticultural therapy in Austria in the company of three women at the heart of the practice in that country. It all started during a conversation with Heidi Rotteneder, the most well-traveled horticultural therapist I know! When I first met her in 2018, she was working at the Cordilleras Mental Health Center in Redwood City, California with Suzanne Redell. She later moved to Grenoble, France for a few years where she joined the French Federation Gardens, Nature and Health, before returning to her native Austria by way of a mission in Kurdistan last year.
Thanks to Heidi, I met Birgit Steininger, a teacher in charge of two trainings at the University College for Agricultural and Environmental Education in Vienna. Heidi also introduced me to Ruth Sander, an occupational therapist who graduated with a Master’s degree in Green Care from that university. She now works at Emmaus CityFarm in St. Pölten and teaches horticultural therapy.
Let’s meet them.
Heidi Rotteneder: Registered Horticultural Therapist on two Continents
What have you been doing since you got back home to Austria?
Since August 2021, I have had two activities and neither of them is related to classical horticultural therapy! It was a choice to change activities. One thing I missed was producing crops, an area in which I have some knowledge. Today, I would describe my activities as social agriculture and it has opened new possibilities for me. That said, I have two ongoing projects related to horticultural therapy, one with seniors and the other around training.
My first job is a residential program for people with multiple disabilities. It is a farm with greenhouses and land where we grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. We are self-sufficient. We don’t sell anything, but we do barter locally. We also have animals: two horses, ten chickens and two cats. What I like about this program is that we combine plants that are “forgiving” and animals that are not. The farm is in the Vienna area, it’s pretty out of the way. It’s one-hour bike ride away from home for me. The association managing the farm is also responsible for two residences in Vienna. The staff is multidisciplinary, with a ratio of seven residents for three or four professionals during the daytime.
What about your second project?
The other program is in Taiskirchen in a refugee center that is the largest and oldest in the country. At times, it has housed up to 5,000 people. Five years ago, the city donated land to create a garden for refugees and locals to meet. Every Saturday, we serve a breakfast we prepare for everyone, and we sell the harvest in exchange for donations. The refugees receive pocket money (the law does not allow them to work).
The most valuable thing for the refugees is to be engaged in a meaningful activity while they wait for the court decision and take German classes. We host between 15 and 20 people, three times a week. During their workday in the garden, they share lunch and build community. As part of their asylum application, this work is also a plus and allows them to show that they are integrated.
After your experience in Grenoble, how do you perceive horticultural therapy in France?
I really liked the openness to other nature therapies such as forest baths in France. This is also the case in Germany and Austria. In the United States, the lines are stricter. If you go outside the framework, it is no longer horticultural therapy. This difference is partly cultural. It’s also dictated by the certification process.
Birgit Steininger: Educator in Vienna
Birgit Steininger is a lecturer in the program “Academic Expert in Garden Therapy” and the master’s program Green Care at the University College for Agricultural and Environmental Education in Vienna (Hochschule für Agrar-und Umweltpädagogik).
How did your interest in horticultural therapy come about?
I studied horticulture at the University of Vienna. My master thesis was about a school garden for children with disabilities. In 1998 I happened to meet someone who was translating an American article on horticultural therapy. After college, I worked for an international organization that organized scientific conferences. In 2000 I had the opportunity to visit the Rusk Institute in New York with Matt Wichrowski and to go to Kansas. When I returned to Austria, I worked for some time in a rehabilitation clinic using horticultural therapy.
Where does horticultural therapy training stand in Austria today?
In 2002, a conference on horticultural therapy was held in Vienna with high quality speakers such as Nancy Chambers. This gave rise to vocations. But where could people get training? The idea was to create a certification in horticultural therapy for people already qualified in one or the other of the fields (gardener, landscaper, farmer, doctor, therapist, teacher). However, in Austria it is not possible to create a new training profile like horticultural therapy. The current trend is to get rid of professional categories now.
The University College for Agricultural and Environmental Pedagogy is a university college specialized in training teachers. What we created in collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine is an “academic expert in garden therapy” certificate. We think it is an asset to have many different professionals in this field. It creates interesting exchanges between students during the training. It is a two-year continuing education program, consisting of 16 weekends of classes and two internships. The first class started in 2006. Here is the curriculum.
You didn’t stop there. Can you describe the Green Care Master?
Yes, we felt that there was a demand for a higher education degree. In 2012, we created the Green Care Master, which also includes therapy with animals. The entry requirement is to have a bachelor’s degree. We attract social workers, teachers, occupational therapists and other professionals. Whether it’s for the certificate or the master’s degree, I tell them they won’t become therapists. It is more of a tool to add to their practice than a new profession. We also hold conferences every year. The last one took place in June 2022.
How are these practices accepted in Austria?
Acceptance is growing. The media is talking more and more about nature healing and the Covid crisis has increased this interest. More clinics and other institutions now see nature and the garden as having a role to play. For our part, we have trained 240 professionals to date. I think a lot of people are doing horticultural therapy without knowing it. Even so, it’s still hard to get hired to work in the medical world. But we continue to organize conferences, publish our Green Care magazine and participate in Erasmus programs to provide materials and manuals on the subject.
Ruth Sander: Occupational Therapist at Emmaus CityFarm in St Pölten and Teacher
Can you introduce yourself?
I have been working at CityFarm Emmaus in St. Pölten (the capital of Lower Austria, one of the nine Austrian states) as an occupational therapist for 13 years. I completed the Master’s program “Green Care” at the University College for Agricultural and Environmental Pedagogy where I also teach horticultural therapy in psychiatry.
How did you come to practice horticultural therapy and what is your current role?
I trained as an occupational therapist, which was my dream profession from the age of 13. From that time on, I was fascinated by the idea that “doing things” could be meaningful, meditative, and health-promoting. As a child, I was very creative with crafts. But when I finished school, I started to prefer gardening. I did an internship in the greenhouses of Schönbrunn (the Habsburg Palace and residence). After graduation, I worked with children with severe physical and mental disabilities. I was motivated to accompany the children to the institution’s garden whenever possible, even if it meant extra effort. I was convinced that they perceived and appreciated the smells, sounds and sights of the garden.
During my training, we went on an outing to the day center “Emmaus CityFarm”, a horticultural therapy project for psychiatric rehabilitation in St. Pölten (Created in 1971 by Abbé Pierre, Emmaus International is a solidarity-based movement, acting against poverty and exclusion. It brings together 425 associations in 41 countries). Gabriele Kellner, the occupational therapist who works there and who shared her experiences with us, impressed me. After working in the home for disabled children for 6 years, I saw a vacancy at the Emmaus urban farm and knew that this was the right job for me. I was lucky to be hired and have been working there for 13 years now.
Tell us how the CityFarm program works.
There have been many changes in our structures and strategy development over the years at CityFarm, but I’ll tell you what we do now. We work in four groups of eight clients each, accompanied by two professionals.
Two groups have a higher skill level: the “Garden” group deals with the maintenance of private gardens, which is physically and socially challenging. The “Vegetables” group grows our food in the fields and in the greenhouse, which is also very demanding – especially in summer – and mentally difficult, as the field is huge, and weeds grow fast. The participants in these groups are intent on finding a job after years of unemployment or they simply want to have a daily structure where they can release their energy through “real work”.
The other two groups, “Kitchen” and “Herbs” are for people with psychiatric illnesses who want to regain a daily structure and find out if they could work again – at least in a protected environment such as the Emmaus “CityFarm”. The “Kitchen” group harvests and cooks daily for the 40 clients and employees of the institution. The « Herbs » group (where I work) grows and transforms herbs and flowers into tea, spices and incense. Of course, all groups participate in the washing up and cleaning of the rooms.
In addition, all four groups can participate in a creative activity and a sports group each week – these are popular settings, where the goal is not to improve one’s skills, but to express feelings and have a good time.
In the morning, each group meets for a round-table discussion, where everyone is invited to share their mood and particular needs. Then, the tasks for the day – which change rapidly throughout the year – are distributed. Clients can choose the task that matches their preferences or that allows them to develop their abilities. Their ability and motivation to work, as well as their goals in the day center, are discussed regularly with their supervisor.
Breaks and meals are taken together – preferably on the terrace – and the holidays are celebrated together at the farm. I strongly believe that the connection to the seasons, working with their hands in the soil and experiencing first-hand the result of their work greatly enhances the clients’ stabilization and healing processes.
Regarding teaching, what is your experience?
I have taught “horticultural therapy in psychiatry”. I based my training mainly on the Occupational Performance Model (OPM) which divides a person’s abilities and needs into 5 levels: Bio-mechanical, Sensorimotor, Cognitive, Intra-personal and Inter-personal. Each of these levels can be analyzed and trained through horticultural therapy.
Take, for example, the intra-personal (emotional) level. If a person is in a manic or upset state, they are encouraged to mow the lawn to calm down. If someone is depressed and has little energy, they are offered a safe, quiet place to plant new plants or cut grass. To encourage interpersonal skills, one might recommend weeding together in the field or cracking nuts in the winter.
When I teach, I talk about my work with clients to offer living examples. I like to talk about a project I started 8 years ago: each client is given a small bed (1 x 2 meters) to grow their own plants. We start in April with the drawing of the beds and the planning of the mixed cultures. After the big spring market, where CityFarm sells thousands of seedlings, program participants can choose seedlings or seeds for their beds. They also enjoy a quick shopping trip to the nearby garden center.
The plants are placed in the beds and watered daily by someone in the group. Everyone is welcome to take care of their own plants, but we meet once a month to weed, harvest and share our knowledge and sometimes also the fruits of the beds, which they can keep for their own use. In this setting, clients learn a lot about gardening their own vegetables, herbs and flowers and experience self-efficacy and responsibility.
In the training, I also discuss the results of my master’s thesis. In that dissertation, I asked clients “What does the garden mean to you?” and invited them to take a picture using a tablet. Then we reflected on the photo and their favorite places and tasks in the garden. For example, a client with severe depression really appreciated the variety of colorful flowers in the “mandala garden.” A woman with post-traumatic stress disorder preferred the fenced-in areas, where she felt safe.
Of course, I also teach self-care as a therapist – these strategies can also be recommended to clients when needed. The most popular place for self-care activities is in the garden – it is a place to connect, calm down and recharge our inner batteries.