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Green Thumbs Up

By Lee Erica Elder

Working with Nature Provides a Fresh Start for Homeless and Once-homeless Families and Adults

As seen in our Spring 2012 cover story, “Grass Roots: Innovative Food Education Programs,” the green-food and nutrition-education movements are booming nationwide. In addition to using agriculture to educate communities about nutrition, organizations find that the very act of communing with nature, especially in urban spaces, improves the mental health, physical well-being, and quality of living for the homeless, residents of low-income communities, and those in supportive housing. Participants learn coping skills and survival mechanisms and witness real-life lessons in accepting change during times of transition.

In February 2012 a consortium of health and housing advocates convened at the Sixth Annual Horticultural Therapy Forum, sponsored by The Horticultural Society of New York (The Hort), to discuss the role and merits of horticultural therapy (HT) in providing viable supportive housing for families and adults. Most of the organizations represented at the forum belonged to the Supportive Housing Network of New York (The Network), which was founded in 1988 and comprises more than 200 providers of supportive housing in New York home to more than 43,000 such units. People from The Network, The Bridge, United Way of New York City (UWNYC), Praxis Housing Initiatives, and The Hort’s own HT programs, among many others, spoke about their experiences with horticultural therapy in supportive-housing settings. As defined by The Hort’s event literature, horticultural therapy is “an effective cognitive behavioral therapy” that provides benefits including “improved indoor air quality, access to healthy food, and a stronger sense of community connection. For a number of Network members, the benefits of providing HT to their tenants have been immediate, substantive and tangible—tenants receive great pleasure from the flowers, plants, fresh food and herbs they’ve helped nurture and grow.”

Inspired by the stories shared at the event, UNCENSORED wanted to explore the ways in which horticultural therapy can effect positive change in the lives of homeless and formerly homeless individuals and families and those in supportive housing and other, similar environments.

Defining the Practices

While horticultural therapy developed relatively recently as a field, it is not a new idea. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent physician, noted that working in gardens greatly benefited the mentally ill. HT training was first offered to professional therapists near the end of World War I in the occupational-therapy department of Bloomingdale Hospital, in White Plains, New York, and rehabilitation of hospitalized war veterans during the 1940s and ’50s involved HT to a significant degree. The first HT text, Therapy through Horticulture, by Alice Burlingame and Dr. Donald Watson, appeared in 1960.

What are the differences between horticultural therapy and therapeutic horticulture, and where does vocational horticulture fit in? The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) provides a few working definitions in its 2007 Positions Paper:

Horticultural Therapy Horticultural therapy is the engagement of a client in horticultural activities facilitated by a trained therapist to achieve specific and documented treatment goals. AHTA believes that horticultural therapy is an active process which occurs in the context of an established treatment plan where the process itself is considered the therapeutic activity rather than the end product.

urban gardening 1 Residents of a New York City supportive-housing facility, The Bridge, work together pruning a tree as part of the horticultural-therapy program on site.

Therapeutic Horticulture Therapeutic horticulture is a process that uses plats and plant-related activities through which participants strive to improve their well being through active or passive involvement. In a therapeutic horticulture program, goals are not clinically defined and documented but the leader will have training in the use of horticulture as a medium for human well-being.

Vocational Horticulture A vocational horticulture program, which is often a major component of a horticultural therapy program, focuses on providing training that enables individuals to work in the horticulture industry professionally, either independently or semi-independently. These individuals may or may not have some type of disability.

Programs around the country use these methods to help residents of low-income communities as well as the homeless. “I think the value is engaging in a rewarding, nonthreatening activity with a living thing, in this case plants, that pass no judgment, and mirror the diversity, adversity, and demands of life,” says Leigh Anne Starling, a registered horticultural therapist serving on the board of directors of the AHTA.

Starling has worked with the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) in Santa Cruz, California, which provides sanctuary, job training, transitional employment, and support services to the homeless. “Our programs take place in a three-acre organic farm and related enterprises. We also have an active volunteer and education program that served nearly 1,200 diverse people in 2011,” says Darrie Ganzhorn, HGP’s executive director. “HGP’s programs exist at the intersection of urban agriculture and food-justice movements, transitional jobs and job training, homeless services and therapeutic horticulture. There is a synergy among these purposes and ideals in daily practice at the farm.” In her time at HGP, Starling found that the therapeutic environment gave participants a sense of both self and community. “Folks who participate in the HGP gain self-esteem, self-confidence, self-awareness, and independence through learning about plants and the cycles of the garden (cycles of life), being responsible for a living entity that provides a basic necessity of life—food, and through cooperative efforts successfully achieve common goals. Additional benefits of working with the HGP and in the garden include communication skills, problem-solving skills, work skills and behaviors.”

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