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The Healing Possibilities of Horticulture as Therapy

From bustling farmer’s markets and abundant vegetable production to summer garden camps and a thriving internship program, it can be hard to keep track of all the activity happening at City Green. And while many of these programs have benefits that are obvious and immediate, some City Green programming has an impact that is a bit more subtle, though equally invaluable to the populations it serves. One example is the latest program blossoming at City Green: therapeutic horticulture.

“We observed that working with people in the gardens has a total therapeutic effect,” said Liz Kleisner, Director of Community Horticulture at City Green.  “People are sharing their thoughts and feelings, relieving stress, and acknowledging how much better they feel after volunteering outside and gardening.”

It seems intuitive that spending time in a calm, natural setting could have beneficial impacts on health. But over the past century, scientific studies have begun to back up this idea with empirical data, and the practice of Horticultural Therapy has emerged as a newer therapeutic field with historic roots.  “The practice of Horticultural Therapy has progressed from an 1800s belief that working in the agricultural fields could benefit mental patients, to the use of gardening as activity and therapy for physical rehabilitation in the early 1900s, to the presence of many types of programming and settings in the 2000s.” writes Rebecca L. Haller in Horticultural Therapy Methods. Horticultural Therapy is now being used in social, clinical, vocational and hospital-based settings across the globe.  Very similar to Horticultural Therapy, City Green’s program title embraces the more broad term of “Therapeutic Horticulture”, defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association as “the process through which participants enhance their well-being through active or passive involvement in plant and plant-related activities” and doesn’t exclusively require a clinical setting or licensed therapist.   These Therapeutic Horticulture programs at City Green are geared toward specific populations, like older adults or youth with developmental disabilities, and aim to meet their individual or group goals by fostering a restorative, accessible nature-based environment and engaging garden activities.

The program formally kicked off last spring after City Green received a $250,000 Inclusive Health Communities Grant from New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Disability Services to create more accessible facilities at the Farm Eco-Center.  This grant funded a number of projects like the creation of paved pathways for people with assistive devices, wheelchair-accessible raised beds, and a sensory garden with features intended to stimulate the five senses.

“There are lots of herbs that have unique smells, plants you can taste like stevia or wild strawberries, and oat grass that makes a soothing sound when you run your hands through it,” said Liz. Other elements include a water bubbler for the pond that exudes a pleasant trickling sound, and plants with special visual appeal like interesting colors, textures or flower shapes. The sensory garden was planted by the participants in the program.

Since the program’s formal start in Spring 2023, City Green has partnered with Clifton High School’s Transition Services Program and the Passaic County Workforce Development Program which bring students to the Farm Eco-Center twice a week.  Visiting students practice garden activities, like planting, harvesting, watering, feeding animals, seed saving, and nature crafts to gain independence, self-confidence, listening and social skills, vocational skills and more. 

“Little by little, we work on building skills so they can achieve the tasks more independently,” said Liz. “At first, we had all the watering cans ready for them. By the end of the program, they were filling the cans themselves, and some were handing out water to their peers. So we’re building the skills towards more independence.”

Stacey Cermak has seen the benefits of these programs firsthand.  Stacey is enrolled in a horticultural therapy certificate program at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, which recently partnered with City Green to offer an internship program. Through her internship, Stacey facilitates the programming and works with a variety of young adults with special needs as well as local seniors.

“As a social worker, I’ve been involved in a lot of nonprofits over the years,” Stacey said, “and City Green is the most efficiently running and organized nonprofit I’ve ever seen. To see this whole therapeutic horticulture program written up by Liz, with dedicated funding, I realized they had a true understanding of what horticultural therapy really is.”

Stacey explained that horticultural therapy can benefit a huge range of individuals, ranging from folks with developmental disabilities like autism to serious psychiatric disorders to physical disabilities caused by conditions like stroke or missing limbs. Another application for horticultural therapy is vocational training to help people explore where their strengths lie and develop skills that can be used in the workforce. 

“It’s amazing to see that every single conversation, every move you make on the farm, has the potential to be a therapeutic moment,” Stacey said. “Whether it's navigating the path into the learning farm, asking someone to help carry the vegetables we're going to feed to the goats, or engaging a student to take on a leadership role. There are no real mistakes here. And that's what's so different from other experiences they have.”

In addition to a rich sensory environment, Stacey and Liz have begun to incorporate movement into their practice as well. They recently facilitated an activity called flower pounding, where you put flower petals between sheets of linen and hammer them, transferring the color of the flowers onto the material.  “We thought some of our participants might be really sensitive to the sound,” Stacey said, “but they just enjoyed the sensation of pounding. It vibrated the table and you could feel it. It felt so good to literally bang out whatever you were feeling.”

In addition to the students in Clifton High School’s Transition Services Program, who have participated over the summer, local senior citizens have benefited from the program as well. According to Liz, “The work we do with flowers and scented plants brings up a lot of memories and stories for the seniors to share with us.” 

One woman in the program was an older adult from Colombia who interacted with a lemon verbena plant. “She was overjoyed because she hadn't seen lemon verbena since she left Colombia when she was very young,” Liz said. “She was filled with warm memories and feelings of home.”

Opening up memories and sharing them with their peers is an important benefit for the seniors, helping to combat isolation and boost cognitive functioning. 

All of these benefits are facilitated by City Green’s therapeutic horticulture program, and the restorative power of nature and gardens.

“It's fun, it's very hands-on, and it’s a soothing, natural environment to be in,” Liz said, “that’s why it has such unique benefits.”



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