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Horticultural Therapy

By Mary Beth Breckenridge, Knight Ridder News Service & Amy Bennett Williams
Exercise isn’t always something hospital patients look forward to. And gardening isn’t always something that’s easy for people in wheelchairs to do.

Horticultural therapy is different.

For the four patients in a recent horticultural therapy session at Euclid Hospital in suburban Cleveland, this was a chance to chat, to create and to forget about their ailments for a while. It just so happened they also were working on such goals as improving their endurance and balancing on their feet.

So lifting a scoop of soil was a weight-bearing exercise disguised as a creative endeavor. Reaching for plants encouraged them to stand in the midst of a pleasant diversion.

Well, sometimes the exertion was evident. “I’m gonna get a hernia,” Thomas Metcalf joked as he struggled to pry apart the enmeshed roots of a spider plant. At Heron House, a south Fort Myers assisted living facility, resident Omer Fortin, 83, knows that gardens are good for the soul. So the former farmer and skilled carpenter built special elevated beds that allow his friends in wheelchairs to harvest cucumbers, squash and other fresh veggies — not to mention stop and smell the flowers.

“They like it,” the Maine native said. “It’s good for them to get out and enjoy the plants. And I enjoy it, too.”

Horticultural therapy involves working with plants in a way that benefits people’s physical and emotional well-being, said Karen Kennedy, manager of wellness programs at Holden Arboretum and the leader of the class.

Research shows working with plants helps people feel better, and the class is designed to capitalize on that by incorporating activities targeted toward such goals as building strength, improving coordination, sharpening cognitive skills and reducing blood pressure. Cards printed with the patients’ individual goals reminded them that this was a therapy session, but somehow, it didn’t seem so much like work.

“It’s interesting and fun, and not stressful,” Kennedy said. “... You’re more apt to try if you’re motivated to go get that plant.”

The emotional benefits were immediately clear. The participants fell into an easy conversation as they worked on creating dish gardens under Kennedy’s direction. They shared stories about gardening at home, laughed at their struggles and told each other about their families. It also helps take the patients’ mind off pain. When the hospital began offering the program, it had participants fill out pain surveys before and after the class. The decrease in pain experienced by the patients was marked, recreational therapist Karen Burns said.

Horticultural therapy also is something patients can continue at home on their own, Kennedy said.

June Nipros seemed set on that. “This is going to fill out, and it will be beautiful,” she said, admiring the arrangement she’d created. She fingered the leaves of a tiny plant that hugged the soil in her pot. “I’m anxious for this waffle plant to grow,” she said.

Plants, Nipros realized, can get better with time and care. And so can people. Reference

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