The Goodness of Gardening
by Diane Blazek - NGB
October 21, 2012

Last week, I shared an article on Facebook about Four Surprising Benefits of Gardening, even though those of us who do garden, are not at all surprised as we enjoy these health advantages almost daily.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to join hundreds of garden writers at the annual Garden Writers Symposium in Tucson, Arizona to see even more surprising benefits of gardening. A big part of this yearly four-day event is the garden tours where we are transported to the area’s best gardens and related businesses. Sunday’s tours took us to the Tucson Botanical Gardens then to Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery. What we heard at that latter stop just has to be shared with a larger audience.

Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery was founded in 1981 by Dr. Joseph Patterson, a Tucson psychologist who worked with adults who had been institutionalized with various disabilities. His approach at the nursery was to use basic gardening tasks as an occupation, a therapeutic activity and a confidence builder. Building on the trend of the time to use native Sonoran Desert plants, Dr. Patterson combined the need for plants with his patients needs for meaningful work, income and purpose.

Today’s Desert Survivors Nursery is “a 'home grown' human service agency; a unique nonprofit organization combining the appreciation and preservation of the Sonoran Desert with innovative and effective services to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.”

The nursery offers children and adult vocational services, both of which provide a community where participants are valued for who they are and what they can contribute, not defined or constrained by their disabilities. While the early child development services focus on early intervention for children at risk of developmental delays, the adult program focuses on various nursery tasks to aid in learning valuable horticulture, business and life skills.

Desert Survivors Executive Director, Richard Bechtold, explained to our group, in very passionate terms, the changes he’s seen in their participants. For example, if someone comes in with a bi-polar diagnosis, they tend to label themselves by their disease. Then in a surprisingly short period of time, that same person begins to identify with the work he or she does at the nursery and more importantly, who they can be, not who they were. Plants alone can’t do this of course, it requires a dedicated and passionate staff whose primary interest is in helping the adults involved in the program. But plants, gardening and horticulture are the vehicles they can and have used successfully. Now that’s a newsworthy headline!

This is in no means meant to be a complete description of all the great work done at Desert Survivors but instead is meant to inspire. This is just another example of how working with plants can improve someone’s life; a type of horticulture therapy of the kind that the American Horticulture Therapy Association, promotes. The association defines horticulture therapy as the engagement of a person in gardening activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. AHTA believes that horticultural therapy is an active process which occurs in the context of an established treatment plan.

We at National Garden Bureau encourage your support of organizations like these as they use horticulture as therapy for those in need. We just added a new section to our website under “Garden Links” called Horticulture Therapy that has links to both groups mentioned above. We welcome your contributions to this collection of web links so if you know of other great programs using horticulture as therapy, please email them to us. Founded in 1920, the National Garden Bureau is a non-profit organization whose mission is to disseminate basic instructions for home gardeners. NGB publishes and sponsors “Year Of The” fact sheets annually featuring flowers and vegetables, including new introductions, which are especially suited to home gardens.

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