Alternative Therapies > Horticultural Therapy
City kids raised on soda and potato chips racing to devour fresh corn raw in the field, quibbling over whose cucumber is fattest, who has the most cherry tomatoes, whom will dig up the most potatoes. Adolescents who scoffed, cursed, fought tooth and nail against going to garden class, tenderly staking fragile plants, begging to stay five more minutes, proudly selling their own-grown veggies at the farm stand.
Last year I enjoyed organic gardening with adolescents at Green Chimneys Farm School in Brewster, New York, a residential treatment center which serves children from New York City. In addition to interacting with animals at the school’s farm and wildlife refuge, each resident attends garden class, and tends to her or his own small plot, as well as aiding inthe cultivation of two acres of production garden which contributes to the school’s dining hall, local soup kitchens, and a student-staffed roadside stand.
If anyone had told me that two years post-COS, I would be discovering the joys of horticulture therapy, I would have envisioned a plant on a couch with a counselor nearby. However, I am thrilled to be involved in a field which brings healing, health, and growth to everyone involved, directly and
Tending to growing things engenders responsibility, compassion, and commitment. Being out of doors (or indoors, interacting with living things) and using our bodies to work with the earth exercises our physical, mental, and spiritual beings. Horticultural therapy is wonderful because it works. Those involved nurture life which bears flower and fruit, bringing health and beauty to those around it. Neighbors of gardens or farms benefit from the beauty and bounty of locally grown veggies, flowers, herbs. Interactions strengthen the community. All of this from one patient's efforts. An accomplishment indeed.
Of all places to use horticulture or agriculture as a therapeutic tool, cities may seem the least likely. However, it makes sense that dwellers of cement and steel towers, traversers of fields of pavement and asphalt, foragers of fluorescent-lit shelves are the ripest candidates for the gifts which nature has to give.
“Eeew—you’re gonna eat something off a plant?!” was not an uncommon cry for new students at Green Chimneys. Amazement abounded when it was discovered that French fries are indeed made of potatoes just like the ones we’d pulled up from the dirt. Teaming up with the life skills teacher at school ensured that the students learned not only how to grow healthy food, but also how to prepare it for themselves. One student said of the vegetables, “that’s not food, that’s ingredients!” “Food”, apparently, would be in a box, or a wrapper. The students brought their harvest to class and left happily full of delicious, healthy, gourmet-quality meals. The kids would bring their own salads to the dining hall, squirting some dressing on their fresh-picked bounty which they had sowed, tended, and gleefully harvested.
Organic gardening or farming promotes health. The physical work is good for the body, as is the harvest. Tasks involved require patience, bring humility, and reward responsibility. Interacting with plants teaches how to be part of a healthy relationship—a less threatening way to approach a larger issue. Practice renews and increases patience, responsibility, and empathy. This is healing.
In Boston, I now work with recently homeless adults. We farm two acres of land on Long Island in Boston Harbor, where many of the city’s homeless services are located. Produce goes to the shelter kitchen. The individuals I farm with are in a job-training program through the public health service. So are those who prepare the food. Our crops are planned with the shelter's culinary programs in mind, as well as the local market. A small portion of our produce goes to the Quincy Farmer’s Market, where participants in our program interact with the public and manage the stand. The program offers six months of employment in conjunction with education and social services, designed to prepare clients for independence.
As "development" pulls our society further and further from nature, not only the environment takes the toll. Stressed office workers drive a mile of pavement in an off-road vehicle to walk two miles on a treadmill. A TV or walkman ensures that one does not pause to ponder, muse, nor meditate. In contrast, a garden or field demands patience and attention, and encourages wonder and insight. Robert Radale said, "Gardening is more than just digging, planting, pulling weeds, and picking vegetables and fruits. It is also the savoring and cultivation of life."
Savoring and cultivating life are not necessarily the goals revered by our current society. They are, however, therapeutic, and not only for those struggling with obvious challenges. Horticulture therapy is an effective and liberating tool. How many of us savor and cultivate life? Thankfully, more of us are learning. Inch by inch, row by row...
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