Growing health through horticultural therapy

Landscape designer helps plant the seed of gardening success
By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
-A +A
Landscape designer Katrina Fairchild has a passion for transforming outdoor spaces into garden artistry. Now she’s turned that attention to horticultural therapy, which uses plants and plant-related material. “A few years ago on a vacation trip, I was thinking about what could I do that’s tangent to my landscape career but that’s more meaningful,” she said. “I saw a magazine article on horticultural therapy and a light bulb went off and I said this is it.” After completing classes in Portland and Denver, she now works with clients. “Horticultural therapy uses garden and horticultural-based activities to engage a client in a goal-oriented and documented treatment plan,” she explained. “The purpose is to improve or establish a person’s physical, social, mental, psychological and spiritual building. It is holistic.” The methodology has been around for about 20 years, but it actually dates back to at least the late 1700s when it was used as a treatment modality for patients with mental illness in psychiatric units. It’s complementary to other therapies — speech, physical or recreational therapy. But it is not covered by health insurance. The population Fairchild serves is varied. “It can be anyone from the physically disabled, mentally impaired, old or young, patients in rehab, substance abusers, school children with physical disabilities and even prison inmates,” she said. Currently Fairchild works with residents at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. She also works with students at an alternative high school in Grass Valley who have emotional and behavioral issues. Horticultural therapy can be applied vocationally, therapeutically, socially or all inclusively “The goal is always the same,” she said. “It is to improve an individual’s well being and quality of life.” The treatment varies with the situation. “With young adults who are physically disabled, we take a vocational approach,” she said. “There have been instances where these kids are getting training in horticulture and end up getting a part-time job with a garden store or nursery.” At the high school, the focus is on building a garden, planting and watching things grow. “They learn to manage their anger, learn to follow directions and learn to listen,” she said. “They’re also getting a feel for what it is like to work with plants.” An important part of the therapy is its outward trajectory. It’s teaching people to nurture something else. “In a nursing home, especially in a skilled nursing home facility, it is important to note these residents are the ones being cared for,” Fairchild said. “When they undertake a horticultural session, they often start to take care of and nurture something else, that being a plant or a garden.” Fairchild cites as an example her work with a woman who had very limited use of her hands. “The project of the day was to create a miniature garden in a container,” she said. “(This person) was very worried about not being able to do the project. I assured her that together we’d be able to create this garden she envisioned in her mind. I helped her with the soil. The key ingredient to any horticultural session is to enable the client. That is really important. “In essence, this lady, even through she could not manage the whole project by herself using hand over hand technique, she was putting the plants into the soil with my help. When she finished the session she was elated. She didn’t think she could do it, so it raised her self esteem. She was thrilled to create something on her own and then take it back to her room and enjoy it.” At Auburn Ravine Terrace, Social Director Beth Murphy said she sees first-hand the positive impact of Fairchild’s work, particularly for people who miss gardening. “They are so grateful to have their hands back in it,” she said. “I have people who constantly ask me when she’s coming back,” Murphy said. Among the activities Fairchild has introduced are creating flower arrangements in vases and plantings in pots. “(It’s good for them) to have a meaningful hands-on interaction with plants and with someone who’s helping them enjoy the experience and learn from it,” Murphy said. “I believe it is important for some people’s self worth to have something creative to do and to be able to do something they’ve always done when they don’t normally have that opportunity. It is a wonderful therapy.” A healing or restorative garden needs to be designed to accommodate the specific population it will serve. “In a hospital situation, for instance, for dementia patients, the garden would have a continual design that is not complicated,” she explained. “You want a garden that is visually and tactilely appealing and non toxic.” Accessibility is also important when designing the garden for an older adult or someone physically disabled. “The dimensions and other physical designs follow above and beyond ADA guidelines,” she said in an e-mail. “For example, I take into account not just widths of walkways, but incorporate raised beds with adequate height and toe room or wheelchair accessibility. In addition, horticultural therapy enables clients to do garden work no matter what their disability is by using special adaptive garden tools.” Applying the principles of feng shui has an important role, too, she said. Reach Gloria Young at ----------- Want to know more? For more information, visit HortTherapyand or email Katrina@TheGarden