Gardening blossoms as a tool of healing


October 01, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

It's one of those truths that ought to be self-evident: Gardening is good for you.

Perhaps in the recesses of our minds, we all know that. Plants and flowers lift the spirits; that's why we'd rather watch the grass grow than look at parking lots. It's why we bring blossoms to sick people, cozy-up our offices with potted greens, and drip living vines from macrame slings in dreary corners.

In fact, growing things makes people feel so much better, horticulture has become a therapeutic tool: Gardening is being used to sow the seeds of hope and the feeling of being needed among the ailing and elderly, and among people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities.

"With plants you can satisfy your need to nurture and take care of something," says Nancy Stevenson, who is president of the Gaithersburg-based American Horticultural Therapy Association and horticulture therapy coordinator at the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland.

"This is especially important for older people and those in institutions, who have less control over their lives."

Plants, after all, bring out the warm fuzzies in most of us -- and the reasons why may be rooted deep in our evolutionary past.

According to Dr. Diane Relf, a registered horticultural therapist and associate professor in the office of consumer horticulture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, humankind and plants grew up together.

It's no wonder then, that many people spend weekends gardening, or steal moments from busy daily schedules to nurture their gardens.

Even houseplants can become our friends, a bit of green beauty to nurture throughout the year. Indeed, says Paula Frank, manager of the Pikesville Garden Center, some people really get attached to their plants.

"Sometimes they bring an ugly, old, tired plant to us and they want to buy a $30 pot for it. I tell them it's not worth it, they should just throw it away, and they say, 'But I nurtured it from when it was a young thing, and it means too much to me.' "

And a lot of the good feelings plants evoke in people transfer into the therapeutic setting. "It's good for stress management," says Gary Jackson, occupational therapist and director of rehabilitation services at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson. "Gardeners say it's relaxing and calming. The smell, sights and sounds of the greenhouse are soothing."

Besides, he continues, "Plants don't argue with you."

In addition, gardening is perceived as a leisure-time activity, so that patients are willing or even eager to participate, according to Bruce Weaver, horticultural therapist at Sheppard Pratt. As the patients work in the greenhouse, they practice the social skills needed for working together, he says.

"It's a non-threatening environment," he points out. "Some jobs are equated with drudgery; gardening is equated with pleasant things, like color and aroma."

Gardening duties are so pleasant that some people actually come back, as greenhouse volunteers, after their treatment at the hospital is finished.

Horticultural therapy has been part of the program at Sheppard Pratt for about 30 years; but its roots go deeper than that: In 1812, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia was writing about its usefulness in treating the mentally ill, and when the Friends Asylum for the Insane opened in that city a few years later, patients were put to work in the gardens and orchards.

Wider propagation of horticultural therapy occurred in the late '40s, when gardening enthusiasts brought their hobby to the injured veterans in VA hospitals. Now, there are horticultural therapy courses at about a dozen around the country; Kansas State University has both bachelor's and master's degree programs, which graduate about 10 people a year, according to Mr. Mattson.

And the jobs are waiting for them, he says. In Kansas, horticultural therapy is used in all the correctional institutions. In places like California and Florida and the gulf states, horticultural therapists are also in demand to help mentally and physically disabled individuals develop skills they can take into the general job market.

Horticulture is being used for job training in Baltimore, too. At the BARC (Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens) greenhouse in Reisterstown, 14 people are now earning a salary as they learn the skills needed for plant production.

"When you introduce gardening activities to people with special needs, the idea is that there will be positive behavioral change and physical restoration," explains Ms. Stevenson of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

In the nursing home unit at the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Cecil county, that's exactly the point. "We try to provide the patient with a feeling of independence, of increased self-esteem, of being a productive member of society by taking care of a living thing," explains Ellen McLoughlin, horticultural therapist.

That's how it works for 72-year-old Bruce Himelright. Too disabled by chronic disease to live independently, the World War II veteran is not so frail he cannot learn new skills like flower arranging, or enjoy the feeling of having something beautiful to give others, or take on the responsibility of watering the plants in the nursing home activity room.

"It's been a great help to me to work with horticulture," he says.

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