Why this business wants you to stop and smell the roses

·3 min read
Alexis Ashworth is CEO of Root in Nature, a new social enterprise that provides horticultural therapy at Just Food Community Farm.  (Hallie Cotnam/CBC - image credit)
Alexis Ashworth is CEO of Root in Nature, a new social enterprise that provides horticultural therapy at Just Food Community Farm. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC - image credit)

Imagine ditching the city, the traffic and the latest Zoom meeting, and heading for the bush.

"No cars, no high-rises, no phones. Just nature — which is where we're meant to be and what our brains are wired for," said Alexis Ashworth, the founder and CEO of Root in Nature, a new social enterprise in Ottawa, designed to immerse the senses in the healing power of nature.

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

Clients walk through a meadow and along a path that threads through birch trees located on the Just Food Community Farm, in Blackburn Hamlet. They're accompanied by trained horticultural therapy practitioners, like Andrea Butt, who help them experience nature with fresh eyes.

"There are ... plants that you've looked at every day ... and you've never noticed before," said Butt, demonstrating how to rub a mint leaf to release its calming scent.

At another point along the pathway, participants are instructed to look up at the tree canopy, and listen for the sounds of birds.

"When the wind blows you can see the way the leaves ... dance against the sky," said Butt. "You'd be really surprised the things you hear, that you don't normally hear, when you take a moment to just focus on your listening."

The Root in Nature experience is designed to stimulate the senses, but also to ground participants in the here and now.

That's something Alejandra Vera Villamizar can appreciate. Villamizar is a newcomer to Canada, who came from Colombia two years ago. She's a horticultural therapy practitioner-in-training, and is completing her internship at Root in Nature.

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

"Horticultural therapy is really good for broken hearts and really tired souls. I'm an immigrant. I was feeling that I didn't belong here," said Villamizar. "When I planted my first tomato plant in my garden, I was like, whoa. I feel like I can be part of this land, too. It was really healing in my soul."

Ashworth built her business plan around people's behaviours during the first waves of COVID-19, which she says proved that nature and being out-of-doors could help soothe frayed pandemic nerves.

"If you looked at garden centres, they were sold out of mulch, sold out of soil. People were getting back into the garden, and growing their own food. Going out to parks because they couldn't go to Cuba. People felt good when they were in nature, and gardening with plants," said Ashworth. "People want to continue that."

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

Ashworth herself reached a breaking point early in the pandemic. A mother of two young children, she was also the CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Ottawa.

"I started working with an executive coach [who said], 'go back to a time when you were relaxed or happy.' It was always connected to plants or nature or gardening. I wanted to find a way to make that my career," said Ashworth.

Root in Nature offers two different options: one, aimed at helping youth who were hardest hit by the pandemic restrictions. The other, an employee wellness experience, as people may be uncertain about a return to the workplace.

Ian Bingeman, a manager at the Ottawa Community Foundation, is considering signing his two teenagers up. He visited the birch walk to get a closer look at what Root in Nature offered, and ended up running his hands through the soil, sniffing herbs, and experiencing the calming balm of nature first hand.

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

"This is an automatic excuse for you to shut down all that busy work, just focus on where you are, and be in the moment," said Bingeman.

The therapeutic sessions are not free. The six-week, Sunday afternoon program for youth ages 16-24 costs $210. The employee experience package is considerably more, at $1,800 for up to 15 participants. But Ashworth says Root in Nature is offering several spots on a pay-what-you-can model.

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC
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