On April 12, 2017, in coordination with UF Campus Earth Day, Elizabeth (Leah) Diehl, the director of the Therapeutic Horticulture Program at the Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens, was awarded the 2017 Champions for Change Award for the category of Health and Well-Being. The Champions for Change Awards program is an annual collaboration between the Office of Sustainability and Healthy Gators developed to recognize individuals or groups in the University of Florida community who have made significant contributions or have had notable personal or professional achievements in the areas of health and sustainability. Staff, faculty and students are eligible for the awards program and nominations are divided into two categories, sustainability or health and well-being. The objective of the Champions for Change Awards program is to honor nominees while also inspiring others to create a healthier and more sustainable community.
Leah Diehl is a licensed landscape architect, master gardener and registered horticultural therapist. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both architecture and art history from the University of Illinois-Chicago and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. She began her work in horticultural therapy in Chicago in 1993, where she started a therapeutic and pre-vocational program for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities at Misericordia Home. She also served as Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture from 1999 to 2014. Diehl has instructed landscape architecture, horticulture and horticultural therapy courses at several universities and colleges and has published more than 20 papers on horticultural therapy and therapeutic landscapes, including a chapter on healing gardens in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. She has provided numerous presentations on people-plant interactions in the U.S. and abroad. In 2012, Diehl joined Wilmot Gardens at the University of Florida to launch the therapeutic horticulture program.
Since its inception in 2012, Diehl has served as director of the therapeutic horticulture program, of which the objective is to improve the lives of individuals with special needs through gardening and to advance empirical research on the value of therapeutic horticulture. Diehl not only plans and instructs all therapeutic horticulture sessions, she also actively recruits participants and volunteers. She leads an extensive volunteer training program in which she provides instruction in therapeutic horticulture methods, which volunteers can apply during sessions to better meet the needs of the participants. Past and present volunteers include students, master gardeners, former program participants and other members of the local community. Diehl attributes much of the success of the program to the volunteers. “It’s also so important to recognize our dedicated volunteers who take time out of their lives to improve the quality of other’s lives,” says Diehl. “We rely on our volunteers for so much of what is accomplished in the program.”
Diehl also serves as a member of the Wilmot Gardens’ steering committee, where she works vigorously with the team to secure funding thus enabling participants to continue the opportunity for the therapy, interaction and support that the program offers. Most recently, Diehl received a grant from the UF Medical Guild Grant to support a therapeutic horticulture alumni group.
At present, Diehl oversees several horticultural therapy groups. Current weekly programs include a session for patients with cancer supported by the local non-profit organization Climb for Cancer and a session for veterans affiliated with the Veterans Affairs Mental Health Intensive Case Management program (MHICM) and sponsored by the B.J. and Eve Wilder Family Foundation. Patients from Shands Florida Recovery Center and the alumni group also meet once weekly. The newest undertaking of the Wilmot Gardens’ steering committee is the implementation of a horticulture and job skills training program for people with Autism spectrum and related disorders. The program, which is funded in part by a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation, offers participants twice-weekly therapeutic horticulture sessions in the greenhouse as part of their job skills training.
If you see Diehl in action, it becomes evident that she truly enjoys her work as a horticultural therapist, especially the interaction with her participants. “The joy the participants take from the program makes it easy to stay motivated,” said Diehl. “I am grateful to be recognized by UF for my work and hope that through this honor more people will learn about the therapeutic horticulture program.”