Horticultural therapy (HT) is all about facilitating the connection and experience people have with plants so they can heal and realize their full potential. Connecting with plants is universal and elemental to our experience as humans. A garden environment can also be very normalizing, a place where a diagnosis or struggle falls away, even if just for a while. The soft focus one usually experiences in a garden setting is thought to be key to the success of HT and allows one to slow down to nature’s pace and appreciate her ever unfolding magic.
HT is practiced in many environments with many special populations from schools for special needs, to rehab facilities for brain and spinal cord injury, inpatient or outpatient mental health, community based homeless support and so on. HT is used like other therapies to meet therapeutic goals and objectives whether they be for an individual or group.
Arleen Ferrara is a registered Horticultural Therapist and since 2013 has designed, developed and maintained both the garden spaces and the HT program at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. Children ages 5-22 with a variety of needs benefit greatly from their time in the garden as do the staff who use the gardens for one-on-one therapy time. The gardens also serve as a wonderful unstructured respite for children and staff.
Arleen conducts sessions with multiple classes at Vista in the gardens and during that time, students work on listening and attuning to the environment, impulse control, following directions, observation and discernment and getting along. The students begin to feel competent and responsible in the garden as their skills grow. They usually leave the sessions much more calm, focused and eager to return.
Of course the garden is the perfect place to learn so many science, environmental and lifestyle lessons. Continually we cover topics such as photosynthesis, botany, soil biology, nutrition, food and water waste, climate and seasonal changes. The gardens are quite large (totaling about 13,000 sq. ft.) with raised beds, fruit trees, rain gardens and native and habitat sections. They are completely maintained by Arleen and the students, so there’s always a lot of fun work and learning to be done.