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The Greening of Medicine

On this crisp September day, a 70-year-old woman, recovering from a stroke, sifts the soil. Beside her, a wheelchair-bound 14-year-old gently separates young shoots.

The scene is a typical one at the Glass Garden, the large greenhouse at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine, part of New York University Medical Center. Gardens are also cropping up at other hospitals around the country. It’s all part of horticultural therapy, in which people work with plants to help heal physical and emotional traumas.

Healing gardens

Nancy Chambers, director of horticultural therapy at Rusk, explains that young and old work in groups with a trained horticultural therapist as part of a vital therapeutic process. Whether it’s setting out a cactus garden or planting bulbs, tasks are tailored to individual abilities.

The physical demands of working in a garden often benefit those undergoing rehabilitation. But, as Ms. Chambers notes, "Although patients come here for physical rehabilitation, much of our focus is on the psychological benefits of being in a garden." Because you can actually see a tangible, living result of your efforts, the therapy can also be very motivational.

Ms. Chambers also believes it’s a perfect medium for dealing with grief--whether you’re grieving the loss of mobility, a limb, or a loved one. "Things die and things grow," she says. "It’s part of the metaphor of plants."

Elan Marie Miavitz described her experience in a grief gardening group in Florida. They met every two weeks to help cope with loss through group support and the ritual of attending to new plants and watching them grow. For one project, they planted an eternal lily bed to honor their dead (Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 1998).

Design for living

At Rusk, variety and the interaction of people with plants is key. "In order for a person to connect with a space, there has to be something there that reaches him or her," says Ms. Chambers. "In a garden, you can do that if you have diversity in your plant material and in your design."

David Kamp, founder of Dirtworks, Inc., a landscape architectural firm that specializes in healing gardens, explains that, "Each person who uses a garden has a connection to nature that is very personal. Hospital patients have needs and conditions that change daily, so an outdoor garden should offer a variety of settings--shade, open sun, dappled light."

Physical accessibility is also key. An uneven path or tight corner, for example, would present a big obstacle to a patient pulling an I.V. pole. The Chicago Botanic Garden has one such "enabling garden," complete with raised plant beds for easy access, adjustable-height hanging baskets, and specially designed garden tools. Botanical gardens in Denver and other cities have similarly accessible gardens and programs in horticultural therapy.

For more information: Rusk Institute (212-263-6028; www.med.nyu.edu/Rusk); American Horticultural Therapy Association (303-331-3862, www.ahta.org).

Date Posted: 05/29/2001

Date Published: 05/28/2001
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