Growth everlasting

Before psychiatry, there was horticultural therapy

The mind-body-spirit benefits of garden environments have been understood since ancient times. However, these benefits were not documented until Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, found that working in the garden improved the well-being of mentally ill patients.

Think about this. It was the late 18th century, and if you had a mental illness you could pretty much count on being thrown away, chained up or both. And this doctor found a way for the mentally ill to not only do something productive but also feel better.

The practice gained traction in the rehabilitation of World War II veterans for a range of physical and psychological wounds. Now horticultural therapy is widely accepted and used in hospitals, youth centers, prisons, community centers and elsewhere.

Working in the garden gets us out the door and into the sunlight. It takes us out of whatever we were stewing in a moment ago and gets us moving. Even if we are just repotting a plant or starting a few seeds indoors, we are affirming the possibility that things can be better. There is even some scientific evidence that microorganisms in the soil have antidepressant and anti-inflammation qualities. And for our efforts, we get flowers to enjoy or healthy food to share with others. So it’s no wonder that this magic is being harnessed by the helping professions.

Two new programs in Fort Wayne are making horticultural therapy work for the people (and animals) they serve.

At the Herb ‘n Goat Garden at Summit Equestrian Center, just about everything – from the old high school bleachers that now serve as a goat jungle gym to the old water trough now functioning as a planter – has been repurposed. Summit, which provides therapeutic riding lessons for people of all abilities, built and planted the garden in partnership with Redemption House, a faith-based alternative incarceration program for women, and the online Bees and Carrots community. They’re expecting many more hands – hands that belong to cancer patients, troubled kids and others.

They’re also expecting a few hooves and a beak or two. Summit is home to a variety of horses, goats and chickens, most of them rescues.

“Everything in the garden has to be good for both animals and people,” said Bees and Carrots coordinator Holly Chaille. You’ll find no kale, as it’s not good for animals’ digestive systems, but you will find calming herbs like lavender and chamomile.

Chaille is certified in horticultural therapy through the Chicago Botanic Garden Regenstein Center and has also worked with the Greenleaf Veterans Garden. She became acquainted with Summit when daughter Claire, 12, began volunteering there. She brought the idea of adding a garden and horticultural therapy to Summit’s riding programs to executive director Allison Wheaton.

The two disciplines – animal-assisted therapy and horticultural therapy – work together remarkably well. Conversations happen in the garden, stable or field that might never emerge in a psychotherapist’s office.

“It’s all about healing,” Wheaton said. “It’s life skills, character building, bringing out some things that aren’t at the surface. It’s getting out of your routine and gaining perspective.”

The women of Redemption House gain a sense of responsibility and confidence from planting, weeding, harvesting and even marketing the produce to benefit themselves and the animals, she added.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Princess the three-legged goat was more interested in butting pen-mate Mildred, who took it in stride. The goats are allowed to be in the garden when people are there.

“I’ve negotiated with Princess about eating the plants,” Chaille said.

On the other side of town, a nearly brand-new memory care center, North Woods Village, has two elevated garden beds in its sunny courtyard. Life Enrichment Director Angi Stoner-Gast, CDP, gave a public presentation on horticultural therapy in May. Now gardening is a regular activity.

Working the soil strengthens grip, scientific study shows the aroma of rosemary aids memory and watering is kind of like working with weights. But there is much more.

Where short-term memory is elusive, the memories of gardens past – the ones that fed their families during the Great Depression, the World War II victory gardens and countless others – surface as they take up the trowel. So does muscle memory. There is at least one retired farmer in residence, Stoner-Gast said.

“This is a topic they know,” she said.

It’s important to her that the residents, who live with dementia or other memory impairments, not just engage in busywork. “The activity has to have meaning and purpose,” she said. So often we focus on what people with dementia cannot do, she said, but “when they’re gardening, they flourish.”

She described one resident who is not very responsive most of the time, but get him in the garden and he’s focused and following directions. “It’s an outlet for (residents) to know they are capable beings.”

Many also love to educate grandchildren, staff members or anyone else who cares to listen on the ins and outs of gardening; Stoner-Gast said she’s picked up some good tips. The horticultural therapy sessions have helped one resident connect with her daughter, whom she does not always recognize as her daughter.

Of course, there is nothing like sharing a meal with vegetables and herbs you’ve grown in your own backyard. Or courtyard.

“They’ve got it,” Stoner-Gast said, “and they’re giving back.”

First appeared in the July 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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