2006-03-03 / Beauty in the Backyard

Plant Therapy

Stopping to smell the flowers
Arlene Marturano

Stopping to smell the flowers

On a series of visits to the Chicago Botanic Garden I became acquainted with their Horticulture Therapy Program. The garden offers off-site plant therapy in health care and human service agencies like hospitals, nursing homes, detention centers, and child development centers. The field of therapeutic horticulture uses plants and plant-related activities to promote health and wellness. I attended plant therapy sessions with nursing home residents to gain first hand knowledge of how the goals of the program are implemented.

While it is generally believed that aging diminishes sensory perception, seniors do compensate for loss of sight by increasing reliance on touch and scent in the garden. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables selected had strong textural, scent, and color attributes. Residents recommended vegetables too since they would be eating them in recipes made by the kitchen staff. Radishes, cucumbers, green onions, peppers, and tomatoes were interplanted with the herbs and flowers. Interplanting is a weed and pest control method in addition to fostering multisensory stimulation. For example, cherry tomatoes, tithonia, basil, and scented geranium were bedfellows.

Gardening retrieves long-unused skills and dormant memories of home gardens. Channeling emotional energy into a meaningful activity controlled by the gardener reduces stress and agitation. Concentration is increased when carrying out a series of tasks: digging up the soil, planting seeds or bedding plants, mulching the earth, watering the plants and keeping a calendar of tasks.

Gardening invites socialization. Isolation is a deterrent to health. Bringing people and plants together encourages cooperation, conversation, and connection.

The garden can be used to develop physical attributes by designing activities for strength, balance, range of motion, eye-hand coordination, and endurance. Accommodations for physical disabilities are easily made. Standing or bending is not possible for wheel chair or walker residents, but raised beds and high planters allow adults to stay comfortably seated while seriously engaged in planting. Tools had grips to relieve tension on joints.

The outdoor gardening begins in May and lasts until the frosty days of October. Then an indoor garden program begins. Tiers of grow lights in the main dining room display propagation activities with bulbs, plant parts, and seeds. Residents grow amaryllis and paperwhites under lights and in their rooms before embarking on rooting cuttings from indoor houseplants.

During Christmas time I led several offshoot sessions stemming from the outdoor garden. Residents made seed package gifts for family members. They separated tithonia seeds from dry seed heads and placed them in 35mm film canisters. Using holiday stickers and gift-wrap strips they decorated the exterior of the container and glued a peppermint candy on the lid.

Another activity enjoyed by residents was to make treats for the resident or visiting dogs and cats. Residents filled empty yogurt, margarine, or microwave soup tubs with moist soilless potting mix. They planted untreated rye, wheat, barley, and oat seeds in separate tubs placing containers on windowsills or under grow lights. The grazing grass gift brings hours of pleasure to cats and their benefactors.

Using dried catnip from the summer garden, residents made catnip treats, too.

See sidebar for recipe.

Horticulture therapy is as beneficial for the group leaders as it is for the residents. Gardening gives the gift of life to everyone.

Arlene Marturano is a master gardener, writer, and educator. As an advocate of gardening as a tool for learning, she helped develop the Carolina Children's Garden

at the Sandhill Research and Education Center.

She is an education consultant with T.E.A.C.H.

Cat Nippers

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 cup soy flour

1 teaspoon catnip

1 egg

1/3 cup milk

2 tablespoons wheat germ

1/3 cup powdered milk

1 tablespoon unsulfured molasses

2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Mix dry ingredients together, then add molasses, egg, oil and milk. Roll dough out flat onto a greased cookie sheet and cut into small pieces. Bake for 20 minutes.

Store in tightly sealed container.

Recipe comes from


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