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Helping Patients Blossom : Horticulture Therapy Gets Results at Hospitals, Schools and Mental Health Centers


Gentle hands carefully tear off a forlorn leaf from a potted fuchsia and move on to attend the next one.

These same hands used to work in a different kind of assembly line, eight hours a day, putting together widgets as part of a workshop for mentally disabled patients. Then the pressure to meet production demands sometimes caused them to clench in frustration or violence. Now they are the first to dig in the dirt each morning at their owner's new job.

This is the world of horticultural therapy.

Using plants as a mode of therapy is an idea that is rooted in history.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first person to record the benefits of gardening in 1812. He observed improvement in mental patients engaged in agricultural activities within asylums.

Horticultural therapy, or hort-therapy, has expanded greatly since then. It is used now in preventive and health maintenance programs at hospitals, schools, mental health centers, nursing homes and prisons.

Now, the seedlings of hort-therapy are beginning to sprout in Orange County. Janine Wotring, recreational therapist at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, works with patients who are recovering from brain or spinal cord injuries or strokes.

She runs a horticultural awareness group as part of her rehabilitation program. In one activity, the patients wander or wheel around a small park behind the hospital. They pick leaves and flowers that interest them, then get together and talk about what they have found.

Wotring said that since gardening is one of the country's favorite recreational activities, talking about their gardens at home provides a common bond for the patients.

She said that being in or talking about a familiar environment has a noticeable impact on the patients: "You see their spirits lift. You see them talk and socialize more with their peers. Their confidence is raised, and they go at things more with the will to live."

Wotring said there is no full-fledged horticultural therapy program at the hospital, but she and her group do their best with what they have.

Sometimes patients work with potted plants on a patio, watering them and helping to trim leaves.

Wotring added that she plans to incorporate more horticulture into the rehabilitation program in cooperation with the Fullerton Arboretum, a 26-acre botanical garden a few miles from the hospital.

The arboretum will be the first botanical garden to introduce a hort-therapy program in Orange County. Plans for the program are still on the drawing board as part of the arboretum's expansion project.

According to arboretum director David L. Walkington, the plans include constructing raised flower beds for wheelchair patients and easy-to-reach wall planters. The arboretum will be used by local nursing homes, hospitals and schools.

Two members of the arboretum hort-therapy steering committee run programs of their own in Los Angeles County. Leslie Gaudineer, a registered horticultural therapist, heads one program at Cal Poly Pomona.

The ornamental horticulture department, in cooperation with Casa Colina, a rehabilitation hospital in Pomona, runs a full-scale nursery. The clients maintain three acres of land and sell to outside nurseries and contractors.

The program was started in 1987, with Gaudineer taking over in last May. Since then, it has grown from six clients to 16. Gaudineer works mostly with people who have brain injuries, back injuries or neurological disorders.

They do 80% of the work at the nursery, performing such tasks as potting, planting, watering, propagating and general maintenance.

The clients work five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are paid a small salary, which Gaudineer sees as a good incentive: "They're not sitting at home and watching TV. They're being viable and productive. Their services are needed, and they're very much appreciated. Cal Poly could not do the work it does with Casa Colina here. It's a joint project that everyone benefits from."

Gaudineer says her clients reap many benefits from their work: "Some came out of a workshop situation where they put together products . . . a very sheltered, supervised situation. Here, they have to be able to work independently with very little supervision. It's kind of a step up for them.

"We also work on behavioral and socialization issues. We stress teamwork and thinking for yourself, and I don't think a lot of them have been put in that situation. A lot of things are decided for them. Thinking for themselves is a whole new experience for them sometimes. It gives them self-confidence in knowing they can make a decision without someone making it for them."

The community also benefits from the program. The clients travel with Gaudineer to two local farmer's markets and sell the herbs they grow. Gaudineer said this gives them a chance to interact socially and to let people know about the program.

Jim Bradford, vocational rehabilitation therapist, runs a similar program at the Long Beach Veteran's Administration Medical Center.

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