1995, Richard Ottaway, Horticultural Therapy, USA

Horticultural Student Goes In Search Of Therapy And Beautification

By Richard Ottaway

In late May 1995 I flew to the U.S.A. and spent four weeks visiting the Botanic Gardens of Denver, Chicago and Brooklyn (New York). I went to look at how those Gardens are using horticulture to improve the quality of life for people. That is, people visiting those Gardens, people living in urban environments in the vicinity and people who might be denied, but benefit from the opportunity to experience the pleasure of being near to and working with plants.

Part of this area is covered by the term `Horticultural Therapy’, which is when horticulture is used to help those with special needs. Although I did look at this, I wanted to explore all areas where horticulture has a therapeutic nature.

Denver Botanic Gardens, through the Morrison Centre, has an active Horticultural Therapy programme aimed at those with special needs, whilst its Demonstration Garden (the first of its kind in the U.S.) demonstrates practical adaptations for `disadvantaged’ gardeners. Its accompanying greenhouse is used for teaching horticultural skills both to encourage individual development, and also vocational training to help those with disability find work. Amongst the greenhouse staff one individual stands out — an insect-eating gecko named Art.

The Urban Horticulture Department at Chicago Botanic Garden runs a similar programme. Its Horticultural Therapists contract out throughout the city, which means that they visit the clients rather than the clients visiting them. As a result they visit hospitals, residences for seniors, and the developmentally disabled.

Its Green Chicago programme is committed to developing community gardens, working with and `beautifying’ neighbourhoods in the dangerously run-down South and West Sides, whilst G.R.O.W. (Gardening Resources On Wheels) provides further outreach into the city.

Back at the Garden busloads of kids from the heart of the city descend on the vegetable garden to grow things previously associated with the supermarket. Nextdoor in the Demonstration Garden volunteers, including some less able, help plant out the summer bedding.

The Botanic Garden of Brooklyn, New York, has, like Chicago, a commitment to support community gardens in its more deprived areas, whilst at the same time promoting environmental awareness through programmes such as its `Urban Composting’. This is designed to alleviate New York’s mounting waste problem and provide the sort of stuff the community gardens are crying out for. Brooklyn B.G. also has its Childrens’ Garden and set, as it is, in the heart of a heavily urbanised area, it serves as a focal point for the community with hundreds of children getting their first chance to grow flowers and vegetables.

The trip also gave me the opportunity to see what other organisations are doing in these cities. These included Operation Greenthumb in the bleakest parts of Harlem; a roof-top garden for AIDS patients in Manhattan; a rehabilitation garden at the famous Rusk Instiutute, N.Y.; commercial herb growing by the developmentally disabled in the Colorado Mountains; and flower and vegetable growing in Canon City’s Correctional Facility for Women.

As a result the trip was wonderfully exciting, stimulating and diverse. Three very different cities, three very different Botanic Gardens and many different approaches. But in each there was the same warm welcome and the same commitment to the idea of bringing plants and people together so that all, no matter who, could enjoy and benefit from that experience.

Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible.

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