Habitat for Humanity CEO steps down to launch horticultural therapy business

Alexis Ashworth credits plants and gardening with helping to maintain her mental health during lockdowns
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Alexis Ashworth, founder and CEO of Root in Nature.

Award-winning non-profit executive Alexis Ashworth has always had a passion for plants.

During the height of COVID-19, her fondness further blossomed as she cared for both her fruit and vegetable gardens and her large collection of houseplants. It kept her calm and focused.

“I always thought of it as just a hobby, but throughout the pandemic I really found myself turning to plants and gardening,” she said.

It never occurred to Ashworth that her gift of a green thumb could become a marketable business until she started doing research early last February into the growing field of horticultural therapy. She credits her executive coach with encouraging her to look into it.

“When I did, I discovered that there is an opportunity here that could be a good career path,” she said.

After more than seven years of leading Habitat for Humanity Greater Ottawa as its CEO, Ashworth is stepping down to launch Root in Nature. Her goal is to bring the healing power of nature and plants to the community through horticultural therapy, nature-based programming and corporate team-building. 

“I’m thrilled to be starting my own business,” says Ashworth, a 2019 Forty Under 40 Award recipient.  “I’m sad to leave the Habitat team, including the incredible staff and board of directors. I’m going to miss them. Habitat is an amazing organization.

"It’s a little scary, but it’s also totally invigorating. It sounds strange, but it feels like my cells are tingling."

“But I’m ready to jump into entrepreneurship with both feet. It’s a little scary, but it’s also totally invigorating. It sounds strange, but it feels like my cells are tingling. I just feel fully alive when I think about my new business and how it can grow.”

The native of Halifax is a go-getter at heart. By age 10, she was using her mother’s scrap fabrics to sew together hair scrunchies and headbands that she later sold to classmates. In junior high, she ran a business helping parents organize their kids’ birthday parties.

“I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” said Ashworth, who has a commerce degree from St. Mary’s University as well her MBA from Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

In many ways, the pandemic planted the seed for Root in Nature. Without the global crisis, said Ashworth, “I don’t think I would be making this exact move. It was borne out of my experience over the past year and a half of maintaining really good mental health because of plants and gardening.”

Horticultural therapy uses plants, gardening activities and the natural landscape to boost physical and mental health. Gardening has been found to reduce depression, stress and anxiety while helping people develop new skills, overcome isolation and build a sense of purpose. 

New collaborators

The formal practice had been on Ashworth’s radar for years. When she was younger, she volunteered internationally with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and, while working on a farm in the U.K., saw the benefits of plants and gardens on children with autism.

The first thing Ashworth needed to do, however, was find out whether there was a demand for horticultural therapy in Ottawa. She turned to the world’s greatest know-it-all, Google, and came across the plucky young Sarah Shapiro, a brand new registered horticultural therapist who was working with residents of The Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre.

She reached out via LinkedIn to see if Shapiro wanted to collaborate. She did.

Word soon got out that a new for-profit horticultural social enterprise was in the early planning stages.

“More and more people started reaching out to me through different networks. All of a sudden, a team was forming, and it felt like it was meant to be. I decided to seize the opportunity and go for it.”

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From left, Alexis Ashworth, founder and CEO of Root in Nature, with three of her team members: Sarah Shapiro, Andrea Butt and Alejandra Vera Villamizar.

So far, the reaction to Root in Nature has been “overwhelming,” said Ashworth, who has hired four horticultural therapy practitioners, with Shapiro as her lead. “People have been very positive about it.

“I think people are craving a reconnection with nature. They’ve realized over the pandemic that nature and gardening activities are really healing and therapeutic. If you look at garden centres, they were sold out of mulch and soil because people were getting back to nature and growing their own food. 

“I think the timing is perfect for this kind of social enterprise.”

Root in Nature has been attracting interest from long-term-care homes and retirement residences. It’s also developing nature-based corporate team-building experiences at its partner location, Just Food, a 150-acre, community-based urban farmstead located in Blackburn Hamlet. 

With many people working remotely these past 18 months, work teams are feeling disconnected from one another, Ashworth pointed out.

“They’re expected to come back to the office, and that’s causing a lot of stress and anxiety," she said. "I want to offer a corporate experience that’s nature-based, healing, rejuvenating and joyful.”

Nature offers downtime and an escape from everyday life “when our attention is pulled in so many directions,” said Ashworth. “We’re bombarded by sensory stimuli all the time. If you think of your attention as being like a flashlight, it’s directly and intensely beaming on something most of the time.

“When you’re in natural surroundings, it’s as if that light softens and diffuses and your mind can rest. It’s calming for the brain to be in a natural setting, where you have beautiful surroundings all around you, but no one thing is demanding your attention."

Ashworth leaves Habitat for Humanity Greater Ottawa on Sept. 10 and officially launches her new business three days later. After months of working almost every day, including weekends, she’s nearing the proverbial finish line.

"It feels like I’m getting to the end of a marathon,” said the mother of a two-year-old and a five-year-old. “My husband (Brian Elliott) has been extremely supportive. He is a full partner and active parent. I couldn’t have done it without him, for sure.”

caroline@obj.ca