Recognizing the benefits of horticulture therapy

From Natural Awakenings
By Nancy DeVault

Horticulturists at Wilmot Botanical Gardens, in conjunction with The University of Florida (UF) College of Medicine, are proving that greenhouses can fight the blues and build self-worth. Research shows gardening decreases stress and depression symptoms, and also boosts balance, coordination, muscle strength, motor skills, mental clarity and a sense of accomplishment.

FRC therapist Katie Walker

The terms horticultural therapy and therapeutic horticulture are often used interchangeably, but UF Director of Therapeutic Horticulture Leah Diehl clarifies that the approaches are slightly different. While both employ stimulating, plant-based activities, horticultural therapy, as defined by American Horticulture Therapy Association (AHTA), is typically a prescribed treatment facilitated by a registered horticultural therapist that tracks individualized goals and achievements; whereas therapeutic horticulture, like at Wilmot Botanical Gardens, is implemented with less stringent, group-based objectives.

The therapeutic horticulture program began serving veterans in 2012 and grew to include other populations with special needs such as addiction, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), bipolar disorder, cancer, developmental delays, depression, movement disorders, renal disease, spinal cord injury and stroke, in addition to affiliated caregivers. Thanks to the diverse benefits of gardening, participants of varying abilities may cultivate physical, emotional and spiritual gains.

Groups comprised of two to 15 people meet for one-hour sessions on a weekly basis. Programs feature three components: traditional horticulture deeds (planting), crafts using plant materials and sensory stimulation (citrus tastings). Private funding and grants typically determine specific special needs emphases. The therapeutic horticulture program is currently facilitating a cancer support group, an addiction group, two veterans groups (one exclusive to women), an alumni assembly open to all former participants regardless of special needs and a horticulture tutoring program for individuals with ASD. While precise instruction and application differs for each group, all have a common theme of connecting with plants and nature to enhance quality of life.

“I have overarching goals for any group that I work with that I think are important and at the core of horticulture therapy. One is that we’re helping individuals rebuild their self-esteem,” says Diehl. “I have found that some of the people that we work with, because of their disease or disability, [feel they] have lost the opportunity to contribute in some way.” She explains that the program affords purpose and creates valuable outcomes both within the participant and inside the greenhouse.

Diehl also strives to foster a sense of community. “Many of them have been isolated because of their diseases or disabilities and they may not have social interaction [elsewhere],” she says. “We’re helping them feel they belong.” Plus, she empowers participants with a sense of ownership, something that especially resonates with partakers battling addiction.

“Leah gives them a few different options on what they can do which is nice because, usually, our program [treating people with addiction] is regimented,” says Katie Walker, a recreational therapist at the UF Health Florida Recovery Center, of her recovery-oriented patients. Since 2016, the center has taught patients that horticulture can serve as a positive coping mechanism and sober leisure activity. “Because we are a production-oriented greenhouse, the participants feel needed; and since something new is always growing, we decide together what to work on,” says Diehl, who has an affinity for experimenting with unusual plants like the desert rose to deepen engagement.

Walker says the effects of being in the serene setting are fast-acting. “It’s exciting to see from pre-session to post-session how much brighter and more positive the patients are,” she shares. Hoping to stretch that optimism beyond the garden space, patients get to make and take home succulent arrangements. “It teaches them to care for the plant just like they should care for themselves,” Walker explains about the behavior lesson.

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