Therapeutic Horticulture Program for Veterans Going Strong After Seven Years

TH Veterans GroupIn 2011, the Wilmot Botanical Gardens (WBG) redeveloped its mission to include patient care, research and education. Shortly thereafter, as part of this expanded initiative, the therapeutic horticulture (TH) program was launched in 2012 under the direction of master level horticultural therapist, Leah Diehl. The practice of TH is accepted as a beneficial and effective therapeutic modality that is used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational, and community settings. The TH program at WBG is founded on the belief that an active connection with plants and nature can be a restorative experience and have a profound effect on quality of life. Offered within greenhouse and garden environments, the sessions are meant to decrease stress and mental fatigue, boost self-esteem and self-efficacy, and provide community, creativity, and optimism for participants. The program provides a more formalized framework to intentionally engage individuals with the benefits and healing potential of gardening, as well as providing a venue for empirical research into the benefits of therapeutic horticulture and people-plant interactions.

Due to facility constraints at the WBG, the TH program was first offered in greenhouse space adjacent to Fifield Hall provided by the UF Environmental Horticulture Department. To launch the program, a group of veterans from the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center were invited to participate in the inaugural sessions. The original group, most of which still attend the program to date, consisted of a diverse population of both males and females receiving services through the Mental Health Intensive Case Management (MHICM) program of the local Veterans Affairs office, an outpatient mental health program that provides support services to Veterans who have a primary mental health diagnosis. The MHICM Veterans are accompanied by Susan Lake-Rawson, a licensed clinical social worker, who has spearheaded and facilitated the group’s involvement in the TH program over the past seven years.

“At first, the veterans were timid and unsure of how to properly navigate the garden and work with gardening essentials, like potting soil, seedlings, and rooting materials,” said Susan Lake-Rawson of the initial sessions.

In the TH program, the veterans engage in a wide variety of gardening and plant-related activities. They learn basic gardening terminology and are familiarized with the resources available in the greenhouse. During structured lessons, they learn techniques for plant propagation and transplanting. Additionally, they are taught to care for a variety of plants and how to identify potential problems or needs. They also participate in plant craft projects, such as creating decorative succulent ornaments or terrariums. Educating and empowering the program participants to feel a sense of ownership and pride over the care of the greenhouse and its’ plants is a significant element of the program. Projects frequently involve collaboration and a problem-solving component, intended to build a greater sense of community. By staying active in the greenhouse or walking in the gardens, the activities simultaneously provide an opportunity for exercise.

“When the veterans first started working with our program we did not see a lot of expression in their faces and most of them were pretty quiet. They were not very confident and wanted to be helped throughout the activities. Before too long we began to see more facial expression, smiles in particular, and conversation began to pick up,” said Leah Diehl, the director of the TH program.

 “I like the service because it provides mental stimulation and social interaction, plus a chance to be productive,” said Veteran and longtime participant, Don K. “My favorite thing is putting your skills to work instead of leaving them idle.”

As the demand for the TH program grew, so did the need for space. In 2014, the construction of the Greenhouse at WBG was completed and the program relocated to the new facility. The greenhouse, which is dedicated entirely for use of the TH program, is considered one of the most important additions to the gardens since the restoration began in 2006. The construction of the new facility, which provides more than 2,700 square feet of climate-controlled space for gardening activities as well as additional office and reception space, was made possible through generous gifts from private donors and gifts-in-kind from contractors. The veterans group was the first to experience programming in the new, larger facility that is located on the southwestern edge of the gardens. The increased space and prime location have greatly expanded opportunities for program activities to engage with the surrounding grounds.

As the program has grown, so has the need for assistance. With a limited budget, Diehl quickly began recruiting volunteers consisting of a blend of students, master gardeners, and community members. All volunteers must complete a 12-hour training curriculum prior to involvement with the program, much of which is offered in an online format. The training covers the basics of TH, describes the characteristics of special populations, discusses adaptive gardening techniques, and more. There is also a hands-on training component in the greenhouse. Many volunteers stay involved with a particular TH group for years and have the opportunity to watch the participants evolve and grow. Mike Harrington, a distance education consultant in UF’s Center for Online Learning and Technology, is one of the volunteers who has dedicated many years to working with the veterans group.

“Volunteering with the veterans group is an enjoyable privilege. It’s an opportunity to share and provide service with those that have served our country. I think it has increased their confidence in understanding natural and social environments. Growing plants and being productive in ways that in turn support the horticultural therapy program is a winning experience for all of us,” said Mike Harrington.

Both Diehl and Lake-Rawson agree that there is a notable difference evident in the confidence level of the long-term participants, especially when it comes to their self-sufficiency during session activities. Most of the veterans in the group can now participate in tasks with minimal instruction because they have developed and retained skills over their time in the program.

“Through the therapy sessions, the veterans have grown to become self-confident and independent gardeners,” said Lake-Rawson.

The veterans group has now become an important part of the Wilmot Botanical Gardens community. They are often relied upon during preparations for the gardens’ semi-annual plant sale fundraisers and assist with anything from planting seeds to pricing the finished products.

TH Veterans Program“One of the things I really rely on this group for is building things that we need – for example they helped build our wood pallets to mount the staghorn ferns. They have also built many moss stakes that we put in pots to support vines. They’ve helped construct trellises for the vegetables and they enjoy tackling these kinds of projects,” said Diehl.

WBG continues to expand its TH programming as possible, but relies primarily on grant funding or private philanthropy to support the various groups. The veterans program is currently funded by a private donor. In addition to continuing to work with the MCHIM Veterans, WBG offers programs for female veterans, cancer patients and survivors, and individuals seeking treatment at UF Health Florida Recovery Center for drug and alcohol addiction. The WBG hopes to continue to expand their program offerings to include additional populations in the future.

“There’s something very mentally restful about walking the garden and tending the plants and soil. I look forward to continuing to go there and enjoy the natural setting of Wilmot Gardens. I’m told I’ve come a long way since I first entered the greenhouse, that now I’m comfortable working with the soil and the plants whereas, before, I was all but clueless. If that’s true, then I owe it all to the horticultural therapy program at Wilmot Gardens,” said Veteran, Jack E., of his longstanding participation in the program.

“The uniqueness of horticultural therapy is that there is a meditative quality during group sessions that creates a relaxing and stress free environment. The skills learned are not only beneficial for gardening but transfer into their daily lives, helping the veterans improve social skills, problem solving, decision making, and achieve greater success in personal growth,” said Lake-Rawson.

by Bailey Hillman, Business Manager, Wilmot Botanical Gardens, College of Medicine