Horticultural therapy is one of the oldest programs at the NCBG, and NCBG’s program is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation. It was established in 1978, only five years after the founding of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.
Horticultural therapy (HT) and its use at public and university-affiliated gardens was introduced to NCBG after Public Programs Coordinator Dot Wibur-Brooks, NCBG Horticulturalist Rob Gardner, and Memorial Hospital occupational therapist Betty Bell attended a 3-day workshop at Clemson University. Clemson had recently established a horticultural therapy program at their campus garden and shared the details of its program with attendees to the workshop. It became obvious to Dot, Rob, and Betty that there was a need for a similar program at NCBG.
On her return to Chapel Hill, Dot began a fact-finding mission, gathering information about local schools, senior living centers, nursing homes, and hospitals whose students, residents, and patients might benefit from horticultural therapy. Dot also began a search for sources of funding for such a program. A Title I HEW grant provided the spark for a Garden program that, over the years, would touch the lives of people of diverse ages and from all walks of life.
The HT program was coordinated by Judy Carrier, from 1978 to 1984; Bibby Moore, from 1984 to 1992; and Nancy Easterling, from 1992 to 2009. It has been led by Sally Haskett since 2009.
Horticultural Therapy is the purposeful use of plants and gardens to promote mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual well-being. It is based on the age-old truth that gardening is good for the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. As Charles A. Lewis noted in Green Nature, Human Nature, horticultural therapy “is rooted in the fact that plants and people share the same rhythm of life. Plants, like people, grow and change. Both respond to nurturing and to outside influences. Tending our plants and gardens connects us to health, to the world around us, to each other, and to our spirits.”
Put another way, the benefits to HT include physical health through activity, fresh air, and nutrition from the garden; emotional health through creative expression, caring for plants, and productive work; social health through sharing, working together, and building community; intellectual and spiritual health through learning new skills and relearning old truths.
The HT program at NCBG has two main objectives: providing therapeutic interventions for clients in individual and group settings; and holding training sessions for people interested in learning about the field, including health care and social service professionals, and master gardeners.
Horticultural therapy is a versatile form of therapy, adaptable to people of different ages, abilities, settings, and circumstances. Over the years, NCBG’s Horticultural Therapy Program has served a wide range of individuals and groups: prison inmates, seniors and the elderly, the physically disabled, the mentally ill, children with emotional issues, at-risk teens, and patients at a local hospital’s EatingDisorders unit.
Currently, NCBG’s horticultural therapist, Sally Haskett, works with three groups: clients with a diagnosed mental illness, clients with a traumatic brain injury, and clients in assisted living settings who have memory or healthcare issues. These programs are a mix of on-site programs offered at NCBG and off-site programs taking place at other locations and facilities.
A current on-site program is a “couples program” for clients with disabilities and their care providers.This program provides opportunities for both care receiver and care giver to learn new ways of working together and to build support systems based on nature and gardening.
Three of NCBG’s current HT offerings are located off-site. One takes place at the Farm at Penny Lane, a working farm in Chatham County that is owned by XDS Disability. This program is a partnership with the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Health, and recognizes that the many parallels between gardening and real life can be helpful to those dealing with mental health issues. The other two off-site programs are held at local continuing care retirement communities: Carolina Meadows and Galloway Ridge. Multiple studies have shown that horticultural activities are beneficial to the health of older adults. In carrying out all of these programs, both on-site and off-site, Sally is supported and assisted by volunteers, interns, and graduate students.
One offering of the Horticultural Therapy Program took place at NCBG over a ten-year period. Clients with a diagnosed mental illness came to the Garden once a week for a two-hour session, throughout the year. They used the raised beds behind the Totten Center to grow vegetables, and participated in projects on the garden grounds. Another recent offering took place twice a week at Learning Services, a Durham- based residential facility for people with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI). Residents found a renewed purpose to their lives, as they gardened in the raised beds at Learning Services.
Funding to support the NCBG’s Horticultural Therapy Program has been an ongoing concern. Recently, the program has moved away from grants as a primary funding source and toward fee-for-service contracts with local facilities and nonprofits that provide care for individuals receiving horticultural therapy. Some offerings have been suspended, due to this change. As the Horticultural Therapy Program moves toward sustainability through the fee-for-service model, grants, private donations, and other sources of income will still be necessary in order to continue offering horticultural therapy to those unable to pay for the service.
NCBG has proven to be a natural home for a horticultural therapy program. It contributes greatly to the fulfillment of the mission of inspiring and engaging people of all abilities. Horticultural Therapy staff, past and present, recall countless examples of people whose lives have been touched by the HT program and have found meaning in life, as a result. As with much else in life, it’s often the “little things” that count. One simple, but clear illustration of this involves an Iraq War veteran who returned home to Chapel Hill missing both his dominant arm and his self-confidence. When discovering during a horticultural therapy session that he was able to prune away the faded seedheads of black-eyed Susans using a special tool known as “cut and hold” clippers, it was a joyful day at the Garden—for this wounded warrior, his family, and the HT staff.
In Sally Haskett’s words: “People who participate in our program often come into the garden feelingwithdrawn, anxious, and depressed. But they leave with a sense of peace, accomplishment, and self- confidence. Gardening can soothe our souls, offer magic and mystery, and reflect the seasons of life.”