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Plants As Therapy?

Our Horticultural Therapist, Barbara Denson, along with members of our Center, were recently featured on News 12 - here's a link to the report.

Here is more background on what horticultural therapy is, why it's important and how RSS is bringing the joy (and therapy!) of gardening to Northern Bronx.

Plants as therapy? Gardening as a way to work out emotional and physical problems? Horticultural therapy is more than just going to the garden and planting flowers. Horticultural therapy is the connection between people and plants. It is akin to the reasons art and music therapy are employed to aid people.

RSS is proud to have Barbara Denson, our own horticultural therapist, on staff. Barbara is our Community Gardens Specialist, part of our Healthy Communities Initiative. Barbara received her training at the prestigious New York Botanical Garden. Here is a Q&A with Barbara and our RSS intern Erika, who is currently on her way to becoming a horticultural therapist through the Botanical Garden’s horticultural therapy certification program.

Here's our interview with Barbara - 

In simple terms, what is horticultural therapy?

We are really using plants and gardening as a medium to heal people. There have been studies that show connecting to plants and soil actually give people a feeling of euphoria.We are missing that connection to nature. And, it's so important to have that connection - people's behavior changes when there are trees and other nature around. It softens people. They've found that neighborhoods where you plant tress there are less crime because people are less agitated. They find there are microbes and things in the soil that literally touching these microbes will give you feelings of euphoria. We all need that connection to the environment. From the website of the Midatlantic Horticultural Therapy Network: on how horticultural therapy heals: “The practice of horticultural therapy provides the therapist with a unique opportunity to leverage the positive interaction between people, plants and gardens to achieve improvements in cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being across a variety of healthcare, residential, school, and rehabilitative settings.”

How long has horticultural therapy been around?

Horticultural therapy is relatively new - it's been an established official practice for about the last 30 years.There are very few schools in the country who have horticultural therapy programs. New York is unusual l in that respect. We have the New York Botanical Garden as well as Rutgers. There are also programs in Chicago. There are about six universities in the entire country with this program.It takes a lot to become a horticultural therapist - you take psychology, sociology and must do a 480 hour internship. You take a test to be certified as a horticultural therapist.

What makes horticultural therapy programs unique? What makes them different than just bringing in someone who loves gardening to set up a garden?
Horticultural programs do more than just show you  how to garden. Some of it on the outside looks the same - you plant a garden. But, we are really focusing not on the plants, but on the client's specific needs – physically, psychologically, spiritually,cognitively and emotionally. An example would be several clients here at the Center who have physical challenges. For these clients it focuses on the act of getting outside, doing the planting and showing them how to physically do the planting. We are looking towards their well-being - what are the clients looking to get out of this? For physical challenges we look at things like smaller water cans so that they can do weight lifting. We look to make modifications  - for someone who is in a wheelchair we look to plan something above ground level such as raised beds that are wheelchair accessible. We make modifications so that someone learns to do something they didn't think they could do. I have programs where we don't go outside.We'll do crafts or I'll do plant cuttings. Because it's still that connection to plants.

In what kinds of environments are horticultural therapists being used? 

Barbara: "In senior centers, nursing homes, hospital, private counseling, physical therapy. Rikers Island has a really good horticultural therapy program. Here in the Bronx, besides RSS, the Jewish Home has a really good program."  A major initiative for Healthy Communities  is to enable and empower other organizations and community centers in the Riverdale-Marble Hill-Kingsbridge Heights areas to get started with their own gardening programs that will be geared toward the specific needs of their participants. Ideally I would like to have more horticultural interns and place them in other organizations.

What about the emotional aspects of horticultural therapy?
For many years I have been part of the Schervier Community Garden which is on the grounds of Schervier Nursing Care Center. The garden is specifically for older adults in the neighborhood aged 55 and up. Many come to enjoy having a piece of land to grow organic vegetables for themselves but it’s also a place to socialize. But you have people who have lost spouses, who are physically deteriorating and they may feel isolated. Many of these older adults have told me that gardening becomes a feeling of doing something normal where you are out with other people. We have gotten a couple of raised beds because there are people that love to garden, but they can no longer bend. Without the garden, these people have a feeling of depression.There are also social activities connected with the gardening - like pot luck lunches, compost work days and workshops on crafts and cooking. You have friendships, connections and the feeling that you can just get out there and harvest.

Tell us about what you do in the community with youngsters.
Besides older adults, I do a lot with kids. I have worked with Head Start and camp programs. We teach a little about nutrition as part of our gardening initiative.Some of the work is in neighborhoods where there's lack of food so we can offer them access to healthy, organic produce. This gives them access to food and knowledge about nutrition because often there is none either due to living in food deserts or lack of finances. We show them how you can cook something that's not expensive but is healthy. Many of these kids don't have a chance to play in a garden.This is an opportunity for them to really connect with the environment

Here at RSS I am the liaison for the intergenerational programs. Last year we had the Kinneret Day School 2nd and 6th graders join us and we did programming around plants, gardening and the environment.

We have nature in the Bronx, but nobody really sees it. This is a way for kids to see where the plants are, where the animals are They love playing in the dirt! Sometimes, we just give them a shovel and let them dig. They don't have that chance to do that. It's an important part of growing up!"

What is one thing you'd like people to understand about horticultural therapy?
That it is something that the individual does. They plant the seed, they grow the garden. You get to see the whole process. You can harvest it, you can eat it, you can bring it to your friends. It is so rewarding to them. 

To learn more about the history and practice of horticultural therapy go to the American Horticultural Therapy Association. To learn more about the RSS Healthy Communities Initiative, click here.

The list of gardens, community centers and garden programs that Barbra works with:

·         Schervier Community Garden

·         Riverdale Neighborhood House

·         Marble Hill Community Center

·         Kingsbridge Heights Community Center

·         Enchanted Garden/JFK High School Campus (through Growing Futures internship and HCI)


Future garden partnership and program:

·         St. Stephens Church and the Washington Heights Corner Project