Working through issues often starts on the ground.
Across Western North Carolina, horticulture therapy helps people of all ages overcome roadblocks to recovery from mental and physical problems.
“Horticulture therapy is really any kind of plant-related activity,” says John Murphy, director of Hendersonville’s Bullington Gardens. “It’s a process whereby folks are enriched and rehabilitated by the process of working with plants. That can be anything from planting in a garden to carving a pumpkin, as long as it has something to do with plants.”
One of three elements of Bullington Gardens’ mission is “to enhance life skills for children and adults with physical or mental challenges through horticultural therapy,” according to the nonprofit organization’s website.
Planting the seeds of success
The gardens are home to the Henderson County high schools’ BOOST program, which helps students with special needs learn life skills, as well as “soft skills” such as interpersonal communication, time management, problem solving and working with others.
Since 2004, BOOST students have planned and planted gardens based on a theme they select for a friendly yet fierce competition. Teams of high schoolers select the right plants for their design, grow them from seed and build garden structures by hand.
Students contend with setbacks like inclement weather, disagreements within the group and tapping into their own work ethic, Murphy says.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem they have when they’re gardening,” he says. “In each of their visits here, there is an activity. And if they are successful in that activity, they take that with them throughout the rest of the school day.”
On June 1, Bullington Gardens hosted its BOOST awards day to reward students who had been working at the garden throughout the year.
Autumn Gillespie, 15, of Hendersonville was one of the students who racked up wins for her participation in the West Henderson High School BOOST team and for being an outstanding student in the program.
“I like going to Bullington because I like creative stuff,” she says. “I’m very proud of our garden and what we’ve been able to do with it. … I really can’t explain it except that I can express myself in the garden.”
Gillespie’s team created a pioneer theme for the garden that reflected various aspects of Western North Carolina’s heritage. Students used millet and other plants to represent the grains settlers from the state’s Piedmont region grew upon arriving in the mountains. They also built a wagon to symbolize the method of transportation used by many pioneers.
Building the garden from the ground up helped the team complete a difficult assignment, Gillespie notes, as well as develop confidence in their skills.
As a result of building the garden, Gillespie says, “I’ve seen myself gain a lot of confidence, and I’ve seen a lot of confidence develop in my teammates. And I think I learned how to express myself as a team leader. I’m not as scared to speak out as much as I used to be. I used to be scared to speak my mind. Now I feel more comfortable giving my opinion.”
Autumn’s mother, Allison Gillespie, says her experience in the BOOST program has helped Autumn grow in other ways as well.
“She loved it, and it’s been great to see her gain more independence,” Allison says. “She’s become more confident this year. She’s really grown through this program.”
For some of the students, the program is a training ground for what comes after school.
“I think they’ve learned a lot about teamwork and really gained a sense of accomplishment,” says Sue Polovina, an educational assistant in West Henderson High School’s exceptional children department. “They’ve learned about seeing things all the way through. These are all skills they will need when they leave high school and get a job.”
Adults also benefit from horticulture therapy at Bullington, Murphy says.
“We work with adults who are in recovery from substance abuse,” he says. “There’s a lot of introspection that goes on. We work with a lot of metaphors. We’ll help them find a walking stick so that they have something to lean on for their journey toward sobriety. We’ll help them prune out dead growth and encourage them to get rid of the dead weight in their lives as well.”
According to a research study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, horticulture therapy is helpful in treating patients with dementia. And a study by physicians with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute found that horticultural therapy has been shown to reduce pain, improve attention, lessen stress, lower the need for medications and reduce falls in elderly patients.
Mary Hugenschmidt, an extension master gardener volunteer in Buncombe County, says scientists have been looking into what makes gardening so beneficial since it was used to help veterans after World War II.
“As the documented benefits of dirt and plant time grew, so did the inclusion of gardening as part of therapeutic programs for increasingly diverse groups of people: not only wounded veterans, but people in hospitals or rehabilitation centers, adults with addiction issues, seniors struggling with the effects of aging, children with cognitive challenges and teenagers with behavior problems,” she says.
“The list keeps growing,” she continues. “Regardless of age, cognitive, physical, sensory, behavioral, emotional, social or other factors, it’s clear now that gardening is more than just a pleasant pastime. It helps people be healthy, happy and productive.”