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Plant Adaptations: Metaphors for Overcoming Life’s Obstacles

Originally posted on the Horticultural Therapy Institute blog

Plants have acclimated to grow in all sorts of climates and growing conditions, whether they are cloud forests and rainforests or aquatic, alpine, or desert habitats. Native plants in these ecosystems have adapted to the soils, temperatures, precipitation, wind, and other unique conditions of their habitats. This is evidenced by their growth habits, methods of pollination and seed dispersal, and other plant characteristics.

Through in-depth examination and discussion of plant adaptations to their habitats, horticultural therapy clients can translate stories of plants’ resilience to personal experiences in challenging situations. Plant adaptations don’t happen overnight, and this perspective may help cultivate insight on current personal challenges. One might ask, “If a plant can grow, flower, and survive in a tough environment, I might be able to adjust and thrive despite the challenges of my own situation.”

One example of adaptation involves plants that grow in the hot, arid conditions of the desert. We may think of the desert environment as extreme and brutal, but the plants that live there have adapted to flourish in these conditions. Check out some of the ways in which desert-inhabiting plants have learned to survive despite the odds.


Many plants have thick succulent leaves, stems, and roots (which are often extensive root systems). These allow plants to soak up as much water as possible during infrequent periods of rainfall and store it for the dry spells. The plants then often conserve resources and expend less energy, resulting in slow growth habits. The slower they grow, the less food and energy is used.


Some desert plants have minimal to no leaves or shed leaves during times of drought so as not to use all the plant’s energy in sustaining a sizable leaf canopy. Despite having no leaves, cactus stems are able to conduct the process of photosynthesis. Ever notice how some cacti, like barrel cactus, have a “ribbing” on their stems? This acts like an elastic waistband, allowing the stem to swell as it absorbs water when it rains and shrink as it conservatively uses its resources during dry spells.


The “hair” on plants helps to shade the leaf surface and reduce water loss. Plus these hairs and thorns of plants make them much less palatable for animals to munch.


The waxy coating of leaves and stems also help to reduce water loss.


The leaf arrangement and growth habits of some plants help to efficiently manage exposure to the sun and elements.


Several flowering plants conserve energy by opening their blooms for a brief period at certain times of the day. Blooms open up at the time of day when their pollinators are most active and then are closed the rest of the day.

Examining plant adaptations with clients in therapeutic horticulture activities

To engage clients, research and make a list of your area’s growing conditions and native plants. Or, select a different ecosystem to study. This can be done either with clients or during pre-session preparation. Have living specimens, pressed plant material, and/or photos of native plants in their habitats available for client interaction. Discuss what qualities make them suitable for growing in this environment. Note how plants don’t all adapt in the same way – for example, some plants have thorns that are a visual and physical deterrent that keep them from being eaten by animals, while others contain poisonous compounds that make them undesirable. Encourage client discussion to similarly evaluate the characteristics of their own environments (the people, situations, culture, etc. in these surroundings) and identify personal adaptations and healthy coping strategies that can enable them to grow and thrive in these surroundings.

SucculentTrough_SusanMorganFor succulent plant activities, plant individual or group dish gardens or open terrariums with succulent plants that offer diverse characteristics. Encourage clients to select a favorite plant and explain what is interesting about it. Explore the senses by blending a special soil mix with sand and/or gravel, ideally suited for succulents. Add a creative flair with colored sand and aquarium gravel as a mulch. Repurpose objects, like colanders, old shoes, and strawberry jars, as planters for succulents. Use woodworking skills to craft wood scraps into planting troughs and then use a woodburning tool to etch inspirational phrases on the side (as shown in photo). (Note: use caution when working with thorny or caustic succulents and gravel and when using woodworking and woodburning tools.)


Missouri Botanical Garden, “Biology of Plants: Plant Adaptations.”

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “How Plants Cope with the Desert Climate.”

National Park Service, “Plant Adaptations.”

Originally posted on the Horticultural Therapy Institute blog





Plants for a Cutflower Garden

Floral arranging is a favorite activity for many gardeners, especially in therapeutic horticulture programs. If you’re on a tight budget, you may not be able to buy fresh cutflowers for your arrangements. So why not grow your own cutflowers? This provides a great opportunity to utilize your outdoor space and enjoy the fruits of your labor that much more. (And…this gives you an opportunity to splurge on buying a bouquet of the “fancy” flowers to mix into your arrangement of garden-fresh flowers.)

Additionally, when the first freeze threatens later in the year, it’s a great time to harvest flowers from the fall garden and hang them to dry. For clients with sensitivity to the cold elements, use these dried flowers in a myriad of indoor crafts during winter and other times of inclement weather.

Now I think that you can cut virtually most plants to keep in a vase for at least a few hours. But I do have a few favorites that top my list. Here are a few plants that I grow in the garden and use as cutflowers, fresh and dried. Don’t forget to research the toxicity of these plants before incorporating them into your therapeutic garden.

(Editor’s Note: Check back at this article, as I anticipate updating this list as time goes on.)


I often say that sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are the second most recognized flowers with my clients. Which is the most recognized? Roses, of course! Sunflowers are easy to start from seed, either in small pots or direct sow outdoors in the garden. For HT/TH practitioners, “go vertical” with the topic of sunflowers – talk about how they inspired Monet’s garden at Giverny and his artwork or watch time lapse video on how young seedlings track the sun’s angle in the sky, and more.

Hardygerberadaisy-eatbreathegardenHardy Gerbera daisy

So there are the beautiful annual cutflower types being sold at the garden centers right now (at least where I live), and then there are the slightly less showy, but still beautiful, perennial gerbera daisies that are generally hardy to USDA hardiness zones (7)8. Look for the ‘Patio’, ‘Garvinea’, ‘Drakensberg’, or ‘Garden Gerbera’ series. Note: these are a bit pricy in the garden centers. Invest in at least three plants, and if they’re hardy to your growing area, you won’t be disappointed. Their foliage is evergreen. Mine have been blooming their heads off since late February (probably earlier than that, actually!), and they’re still blooming in late March, with more buds setting.


Plant a variety of daffodil bulbs (Narcissus), with other bulbs like tulips and hyacinths, in the fall. Then harvest a few blooms out of the garden in the spring and mix with spring flowering tree branches like cherry or peach trees in your seasonal arrangements.


An easy perennial to grow in the garden, then divide and make more…and more…and more…well, you get the idea. Cut the flowers or even the sword shaped leaves and put into bud vases. This is a great flower to “go vertical” with and share the Greek myths about Iris.


This drought tolerant perennial is loved by pollinators…and in a floral arrangement. There are so many different varieties of coneflower (Echinacea) with interesting names like ‘All That Jazz’, ‘Coconut Lime’, and ‘Fragrant Angel’, flower colors and shapes, and growth habits.


An old fashioned summer annual, cockscomb (Celosia) can used as a fresh or dried cutflower.

Gomphrena_eatbreathegardenGlobe Amaranth

Often confused as bachelor’s buttons (which is a completely different plant), globe amaranth (Gomphrena) is a great drought tolerant summer annual that can be used as a fresh or dried cutflower. I especially love ‘Strawberry Fields’ (red) and ‘All About Purple’ (purple).

Cleome2_eatbreathegardenSpider Flower

Spider flower (Cleome) is an interesting annual with a towering height. Plug it into the middle to back of a flower border. For some, it grows all summer long. For me in Texas, it fades away in the true heat of the summer. I like the lavender flowers and heat tolerance of ‘Senorita Rosalita’.

Aspidistra_eatbreathegardenCast iron plant

Don’t forget your greenery. Cast iron plant (Aspidistra) is a stalwart in Southern shade gardens or an excellent low maintenance, low light houseplant. Its strappy leaves are an excellent foil for more delicate flowers or mix with tropical flowers.


Another option for greenery, fatsia is an evergreen shrub in Southern shade gardens. Its large waxy leaves are also paired well with tropical flowers or as a single leaf with a single flower in a bud vase.

Other Notables

Here are a few additional plants that make great fresh or dried cutflowers or greenery. Whenever I purchase cutflowers, I try to buy flowers, such as baby’s breath, statice, or Billy balls, which I don’t grow but know that they make excellent dried flowers if I have leftovers. To dry flowers, I cut the stems, tie together, and hang upside down in an out-of-the-way spot on a clothes line or herb drying rack.

Southern magnolia
Oakleaf hydrangea
Russian sage
Sweet Annie
Baby’s breath
Billy balls
Sea holly
Globe thistle
Calla lily

Univ. of Missouri Extension, Drying Flowers and Foliage for Arrangements

Catherine Mix, Fine Gardening, Issue 132, The Best Flowers for Your Cutting Garden

Debra Prinzing (2012). The 50-Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local, and Sustainable Flowers. St. Lynn’s Press

The Transformative Experience of Basil Seed

At a time when gardeners are sowing seeds in preparation for the spring garden, let’s talk about seeds…basil seed in particular.

About a year ago, friend and fellow practitioner Charles Plummer of Youth with Faces told me about how basil seed can change before your very eyes, if you just add water. He had learned this from Rebecca Haller, HTM, during one of the Horticultural Therapy Institute’s courses.

Somewhat skeptical, I said, “Well, what happens?”

He encouraged, “Just give it a try and see what happens.”

It took me a couple more months – when I was preparing to lead a seed sowing session with one of my groups – before I was in the same room as basil seed, an eye dropper, and some water. So in taking Charles’ advice, I gave it a try.

And WOW!

Did you know that basil seed can change right before your eyes in just a few seconds?

In a world of instant gratification, clients can sometimes get impatient with the “slow growing” nature of plants in the garden. This is a great opportunity for a meaningful lesson, or actually a series of lessons, on the phrase “Good things come to those who wait.” The act of nurturing a plant – from seed to seedling to full grown plants that can be harvested for eating or collecting seed – can help the gardener experience the cyclical nature of life in real time. Some things just don’t happen overnight…patience is a virtue.

However, at other times, an activity with instantly gratifying results can be equally as powerful and transformative. Here, watching a basil seed from start to finish can help shift a person’s self-focused attention outside of themselves to something that is so tiny. In a sense, it can be incredibly grounding for one’s perspective to watch a seed that’s a centimeter in size transform itself. (Read more on the transformative nature of awe and the healing power of awe, supported by recently published research in the journal Emotion.)

So what exactly does the basil seed do when you add water? As Charles would say, just give it a try yourself. I’ll give you a sneak peek below.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenTo start, gather together the following materials: basil seed (I used the Genovese type because it was handy, though I’m sure pretty much any basil seed would work), cup of water, eye dropper, and your hands.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenOpen your hand out flat so that the palm of your hand is facing up toward the sky. Gently tap some basil seed out of the seed packet into the palm of your hand. Take note of what the basil looks and feels like at this time. The seed is tiny in size and black in color – it kinda looks like the poppy seeds that get stuck in your teeth after eating a poppy seed bagel. Use a finger from your other hand to roll the dry seed around in your hand. Focus your attention on the sensation of the seed rolling around in your hand.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenNext, get some water in your eye dropper and add a few drops of water over the top of the seed. Make sure the seed has contact with the water.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenNotice how the added water feels to your skin – cool and wet. And watch.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenFocus all of your attention on the seed. Be patient and watch. It doesn’t happen instantly. And, don’t worry, the seeds aren’t jumping beans, so they won’t start popping up into your face. They also don’t grow spikes or turn into orange and blue polka dots.

Just watch…

And watch…

And watch until…

There! Do you see it?!?

What happened? The basil started turning a different color. What color? It’s kind of a gray color, right?

Keep watching…

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenAfter a few seconds – at least 30 seconds, probably more – the basil seed will soak up most, if not all, of the water. The seed will have changed from tiny, black seeds to slightly larger, puffier, whitish gray seeds. If you look very closely, you can actually see the layer of seed mucilage over the seed coat.

So what is seed mucilage? It is a thin gelatinous layer that forms over seeds when exposed to moisture. Basil seeds form noticeable amounts of mucilage. You can even do this same experiment with chia seeds and notice the copious amounts of gel that form. Weird. (Read more about mucilage and its purpose here.)

After I first did this activity, I felt exhilarated and inspired to learn more about why these seeds do this – and every time I have done this activity since then, I’ve felt the same way. There is always a point – typically right when the water is added to the seeds – at which I think to myself, “Will the seeds change?” And then it happens.

Aren’t plants amazing?

Unique Trees That Have Faced Adversity

Just like people, plants can tell some interesting stories. Check out the tales of these trees.

Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). A prehistoric tree that grew 90 million years ago, the Wollemi pine was thought to be extinct until a stand of the trees was found about 20 years ago growing in a national park just north of Sydney, Australia. The photo above is of a Wollemi pine taken at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England, about ten years ago. Read more about the Wollemi pine here.

Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora). A nearly 400-year-old Japanese bonsai survived the Hiroshima blast and is now located at United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Read more about this bonsai here and here.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). The 1988 fires burned over one million acres in Yellowstone National Park. Though it burned through acres of vegetation, the fire actually heated up the resin within the pine cones of the lodgepole pine, releasing the seeds which otherwise would have been held captive inside the cones for many years. Many seedlings germinated by the following year. Read more about the lodgepole pine here.

General Sherman giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum). The world’s largest tree by volume is located in the Sequoia National Park in California. Check out the stats on the General Sherman tree here.

[Note: This article was originally published as part of a larger article “Warrior Plants” in the AHTA News Magazine for the American Horticultural Therapy Association.]

Propagating Plants and Celebrating our Unique Qualities

In my last post about working with a group of Afghan women, following a discussion about the qualities that make us uniquely us, I invited the group to propagate three plants – Sansevieria, spider plant, and begonia – in a small pot.

Apr2015 1602Then I gave them three brightly colored craft sticks, all different colors, and asked them to think of three words that describe themselves and describe the uniqueness of “me.” I encouraged them to write the words in their primary language on one side of the stick, and then we would translate them to English and write the words on the other side of the sticks. We worked together to do this portion of the project, and each participant proudly shared the three words that make them uniquely them. They inserted their sticks into the pot, assigning each plant the unique quality written on the stick.

Apr2015 1608

What are three words that describe the uniqueness of YOU?

Tips to Engage Elder Clients in the Outdoor Garden during a Therapeutic Horticulture Activity

Taking advantage of the beautiful spring weather, I have been bringing my elder groups outdoors as much as possible lately. We have been busy gardening in raised beds and sowing seed.

The act of going outdoors can be a bit challenging sometimes. I work mostly in residential facilities and find that some individuals aren’t inclined to go outdoors, even if they are physically and medically able. Some prefer to stay indoors where they feel more comfortable. At one of my client locations, residents are less inclined to go outdoors if they see a waving flag on the flagpole just outside the main hall window. Regardless of the time of year, they naturally think that it must be “cold out there.” So in these circumstances, I employ different strategies to gently encourage clients outdoors.

It is my goal to have clients choose to come outside into the garden with us. And not be taken there. Sometimes I am able to monitor this, sometimes not.

And when clients arrive in the garden, I encourage everyone to get involved, in one way or another. Some people have no interest in working directly at the garden beds. However, they may be enticed to work at tables or other areas adjacent to the garden. As a result, I have employed the following methods to engage clients wherever they choose to be.

Getting Outdoors

FebMar2015 672Extend the olive branch. When approaching individuals before a session, I often bring a flowering plant, colorful watering can, a package of seed (which I often shake when entering the room and talking with people), or other visually interesting object with me and use that as a physical invitation to join the group outdoors. They can get an idea of the task at hand, with the visual and the verbal reinforcing each other.

Be descriptive about today’s activity. As necessary, I elaborate on the activity and use descriptive language to outline the Who, What, When, Where, and Why – the people who are involved, what tasks we intend to accomplish and why, the plants to be worked with, a description of today’s weather and seasonal interests, and so on. Outline the role that you hope they will fill in helping the group achieve the specific goal.

Provide reassurance of assistance. Reassure hesitant individuals that there are others there to help – this reassurance is essential for those who may not have prior gardening experience or lack the confidence to participate. So I might say, “Here [offering the individual the desirable object used as a physical invite], would you like to help us in the garden? We could really use your help and support. We’re getting our garden open for the spring, and I would appreciate your help to plant these beautiful geraniums.” I respond with additional information as necessary.

Therapeutic Horticulture - Tips for Engaging Elders in the Outdoor GardenStill hesitant? “Come and keep us company.” For some, just getting outside is an accomplishment. A simple invitation to “just come and sit with us” is often the trick to entice someone outdoors. And more often than not, these individuals see others having fun and doing different tasks, and then want to participate themselves. Or, they simply do just want to come and sit with the group. And I’m grateful for that too.

If at first you don’t succeed…loop back around. After bringing others outdoors, go back and check in with individuals who originally didn’t want to go outside. They might want to come outside now that they see everyone else out there!

Sometimes there are individuals who can’t be enticed outdoors, no matter what you do or say. With the nature and goals of my programs, that is ok. I respect each individual’s right to make that choice. And, during my next visit, I will extend the same invitation and hope they will come then.

Once Outdoors

So clients have made the decision to join us outdoors. Since I like to give them the ability to make choices about what they can do while outside, I prepare additional activities when appropriate, aside from planting or tending directly to the garden. Some clients don’t want to do those activities, so I strategize about other relevant tasks and make these alternatives available. (Note: I have agency staff and volunteers assist during sessions and employ these strategies when practical.)

Therapeutic Horticulture - tips on engaging elder clients outdoors - sowing seedSowing seed – Think ahead and plan for future plantings. Have clients work together at a table to prepare soil and plant seeds for future gardening activities.

Grooming plants – Show clients how to deadhead and groom plants that are to be or already are planted in the garden. Engage them in conversation and encourage them to make observations about the plants being tended and the garden itself.

Organizing and cleaning pots – When planting, I hand empty pots to clients who love organizing or appreciate a challenge. Organizing and stacking pots is like working a puzzle, so make sure to provide encouragement and direction as appropriate.

Therapeutic Horticulture - tips on engaging elders outdoorsWatering plants or filling up the birdbath – Some individuals view working with water as less “dirty” or easier than other gardening activities. I see it as another opportunity for sensory stimulation, social interaction (working in partnership with those who are planting), and working motor skills.

Therapeutic Horticulture - Tips on Engaging Elders in the Outdoor GardenTouring the garden and making observations – Some individuals want to enjoy the sunshine and walk around the garden. Or some clients are agitated and don’t want to be around people. If possible, make an assignment to locate a favorite plant or see how the bird’s nest full of eggs is progressing, and have a friend or staff member go with that person to explore together. Jot observations in a notebook or pick a flower to tuck behind your ear.

Gourd Snowmen

It’s a snowman…made out of gourd!?! Typically a favorite fall accessory, gourds can be used year-round for craft projects due to their hard woody shells that aren’t inclined to rot. So in January, when you’re looking for new indoor activity ideas, embrace the winter season and transform these lesser known cousins of pumpkins and squash into a cool season Mr. Potato Head of sorts.

*Note: More photos to come…hopefully! My external hard drive (where ALL of my photos are stored – *palm to forehead*) crashed while working on this post. Cross your fingers and toes that I am able to get all my photos back. I staged a couple of shots so I could get this post online.

Gourd Snowman supplies (not all supplies shown)


  • Gourd, cleaned, prepared, and ready for crafting
  • Newspaper
  • Paint (in white; use other colors for additional decorating, only if you have time to allow the white to dry first. Acrylic paint works best; tempera is ok but prone to flaking, especially if it’s washable tempera.)
  • Paintbrush
  • Plate for paint
  • Hair dryer, optional
  • Socks, preferably women’s dress socks (I prefer socks over other materials because they’re stretchy to fit any sized gourd “head” and cheap and easy.)
  • Googly eyes (is there another name for these?), optional
  • Glue (if using googly eyes)
  • Rhinestone stickers (I have used black and orange stickers for the eyes/mouth/buttons and nose respectively), optional
  • 3-D paint (otherwise known as “Puffy Paint,” in black and orange)
  • Pencil
  • Drill with drill bit
  • Twigs (with a diameter that matches the drill bit)
  • Pruners
  • Ribbon or fabric (I used narrow pieces of black felt, with “fringe” cut at both ends)
  • Scissors

Step-by-Step Instructions                                                               
Gather together supplies and have ready. Make sure the hair dryer is plugged in, and the drill is fully charged. Pour the white paint onto a plate, and add a paintbrush.

Set the gourd on a piece of flat laying newspaper.

Paint the gourd completely white – top to bottom. (One coat of paint is fine; two coats are perfect.)

Allow the paint to dry. To expedite the drying process, you can use a hair dryer to dry the paint. Keep the dryer moving at all times to avoid heating up any one section too much. For me, the heat from the hair dryer did cause a tiny amount of cracking in the paint, but nothing too bad – I was satisfied with the results and touched up any cracked or faded spots with additional paint. Allow the paint to air dry, if you intend on creating high quality products or have the time to dry and come back to finish (which I don’t during a one-hour program).

Pull the black sock over the upper portion of the gourd onto the snowman’s “head.” Fold the ends of the sock up to make it fit the head like a floppy snow hat. Embellish the hat if desired.

Now it’s time to make the snowman’s face. Here are a few options for making the eyes. (1) Use glue to stick the googly eyes onto its “head.” (2) Or, apply rhinestone stickers for the eyes. They are three dimensional and look like charcoal to me. (Om, channeling Frosty…) (3) Or, use 3-D paint to create two dots for the eyes. (I prefer black for the traditional charcoal look.) Keep in mind that the 3-D paint could run a bit, if the sides of the gourd are steep. Laying the gourd on its side, with newspaper as shims to hold it upright, helps to prevent the paint from running.

Add the nose. Use the 3-D paint (orange, if you’ve got it) to draw a long and narrow sideways triangle – it should resemble a carrot.

Add the mouth. Use either the rhinestone stickers or the same color of 3-D paint you used to create the eyes, and add a few dots in a line to resemble a mouth.

Use the rhinestone stickers or 3-D paint to create “buttons” down the lower portion of the gourd, or the “body.”

Select the two spots where the snowman’s arms will go – one spot on each side of the snowman’s “body.” Use a pencil to mark the spots.

Use the drill to poke two holes into the gourd.

Cut the twigs to fit the holes and insert them. The twigs should fit tightly without wiggling loose. The twig arms need to stay right where they are. If you accidentally cut the holes too big, apply masking tape around the end of the twig and insert into the holes.

Cut the ribbon or fabric piece so that it will tie around the “neck” of the gourd, with a bit extra on the ends. Tie around the gourd, and voila! It’s a scarf.

Set your snowman in a safe location to dry completely.

Jan2015 022Notes for Horticultural Therapy Practitioners…                   
Gourds come in a variety of shapes and sizes – swan neck, apple and pear shapes, gourds with warts and ridges, mini ones, long ones, round ones, and more – providing a myriad of opportunities for sensory exploration. Shake them and you can hear the seeds rattle inside. Start your own GPO – er, Gourd Percussion Orchestra. I keep a variety of gourds in stock and bring them out every year to explore with clients. Compare them to “green” gourds (if available), pumpkins, and squash. Show off pictures and samples of gourd art created by professional artists. Discuss their historical use – did you know that loofah sponges actually come from a gourd? (I thought they came from the sea.)

Other gourd uses to consider, besides your snowman:
– Make snowman ornaments out of mini gourds.
– Embellish miniature egg shaped gourds as holiday ornaments with other themes.
– Paint self portraits onto gourds and create your own gourd “family.”
– Drill a hole, clean the gourd’s interior, decorate the exterior, attach a twine hanger, and hang as a birdhouse.

Beware of mold that can form on the gourd’s exterior during the drying process. Though the mold can actually imprint an interesting pattern on the outside of the gourd, you may need to clean gourds thoroughly before taking them to work with clients. Make sure to store gourds in a well ventilated, dry area. (I store mine in stacking bulb crates.)

Take care when handling the drill and hair dryer. Set up a station where participants go to someone approved to handle the drill and/or hair dryer on their gourds.

Program Notes                                                                                      
The hair dryer will not speed up the drying time for 3-D paint. That, my friend, takes at least one day to dry. So if you use 3-D paint, make sure to place the snowman in a safe place to dry overnight – and make sure the gourd lays flat so the paint doesn’t run. (Don’t wait, like I did, until the day of a program to create your sample gourd, with 3-D paint, for show and tell. I drove the entire way to the program location, holding my gourd in one hand and driving with the other. I got there successfully, then interested participants started passing around the ‘wet’ gourd and well, you know…)

It may be necessary to clean and prepare gourds for craft work ahead of time, especially if you have gourds that haven’t been “finished” and are dirty. The gourd cleaning process can be done as a standalone program, in preparation for the program when the gourds will ultimately be decorated. If this is the case, follow these steps:

Vessel, such as dishtub or clean bucket
Something to weigh down the gourds as they soak
Pot scrubbing brush works best. Also try sponges with abrasive pad on one side.
Safety gear, including a dust mask respirator and medical or dish gloves

Soak gourds, completely submersed, in water for about 10 minutes. Then use scrubbing brush or sponge to scrub along the gourd’s exterior. Allow to dry completely. (Instructions adapted from Welburn Gourd Farm.)

Budget Buster Tips                                                                                
If doing this activity with a group, you can take adult-sized black socks and cut them in half to save on costs. After applying the sock hat onto the top of the snowman’s head, tie a small piece of string, twine, or ribbon to the floppy end of the sock, about one quarter the way down from the floppy end.

You might be able to find dried gourds online on clearance, just after Christmas and into January. Check out Welburn Gourd Farm or Amish Gourds for online purchasing. You can also trying growing your own gourds from seed, if you have the space in your garden.

Mini Blooming Pumpkins

Miniature orbs decorated with dried flowers…how fantastically “fall!” If you’re looking for some no-carve, no-Halloween, pro-Thanksgiving pumpkin decorating options, look no further than these season extending mini blooming pumpkins.

Blooming PumpkinsSupplies                                                                                                    
Mini pumpkins
Glue (Elmer’s glue works fine, but heavy duty craft glue works better)
Dried flowers
Sharpie pen
Decorative tags, optional
Twine or wire, optional

Blooming Pumpkin

Step-by-Step Instructions                                                                
Select the pumpkin and the flowers to be used in decorating it.

Prep the flowers by removing stems and unsightly petals or leaves.

With the pumpkin sitting upright in front of you (stem pointing up), apply a generous amount of glue around the base of the stem. Don’t be stingy here – make sure to apply the glue all over the top of the pumpkin, right up to and away from the stem.

Quick note – whenever I work with glue, it’s important to constantly remind myself and clients that THE GLUE WILL DRY CLEAR. So don’t sweat it if you accidentally apply too much and it starts to run down the sides of the pumpkin, or get it on the “good” part of the flowers. THE GLUE WILL DRY CLEAR!

Blooming PumpkinWith the glue in place, begin placing flowers on the top of the pumpkin. There’s no rhyme or reason on how to apply flowers – just make it look pretty to your tastes.

Apply additional glue as necessary to ensure all flowers have glue on them. (This is where I like to use Elmer’s glue since the tip of the bottle easily inserts between flowers to provide targeted glue application. If using craft glue, use a cotton swab to apply targeted globs of glue as needed.)

Blooming PumpkinsKeep applying flowers, rotating the pumpkin 360 degrees during application to ensure even coverage of flowers on all sides.

Continue until complete.Blooming Pumpkin

If attaching a decorative tag, write a quick note or greeting, inspirational quote, your name, or whatever on the tag.

Thread the wire through the hole in the tag.

Attach the wire to the pumpkin’s stem and secure in place. Voila!Blooming Pumpkins

Notes for Horticultural Therapy Practitioners…                        
Aside from the changing colors of fall leaves, pumpkins provide a great seasonal cue to place clients in the time of year. To me, pumpkins represent autumn…and not just Halloween. I like blooming pumpkins as a season extending activity that’s appropriate to display all the way up to Thanksgiving. And, since I’m not able to easily use sharp knives or do pumpkin carving for safety and logistical reasons with most of my groups, this activity is an ideal option.

This is also an activity that can require more than one session for preparation, if you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor garden to utilize with a therapeutic horticulture program. One session can include the planting of annual flowers and perennials that are suitable for drying. Subsequent sessions include the maintenance and gradual harvesting of these flowers in the garden.

And did you know that pumpkins float in water?!? Oh, don’t get me started on that…

Blooming PumpkinsContraindications                                                                                   
If you need to cut the dried flowers into smaller pieces, and you’re working with a group where sharp objects like scissors or pruners are potentially unsafe, here are a few tips to follow:

– Use child-safe scissors, not sharp scissors or pruners.

– Use flowers that are easy to pinch with the fingers. Be mindful of the level of the “ease of pinching,” in comparison to tolerance levels, for those who have fine motor issues.

– Pre-cut the stems off flowers and have them ready for use ahead of time.

Other potential issues:

When glue and flowers may be eaten by some individuals with cognitive challenges, use non-toxic options. Avoid putting flowers in bowls or other food-related objects.

Program Notes                                                                                         
Whenever I do this activity, I like to incorporate opportunities for clients to reminisce about their favorite holiday memories. So prior to doing the activity creations, we answer open ended questions about Thanksgivings past. For large groups, we break up into small groups and pass out pieces of paper with prompt questions. The groups identify a group leader and discuss their answers to the questions. After a few minutes, we gather back together and discuss the responses as a group.

Examples of prompt questions
– What is your favorite part of Thanksgiving?
– What are you are thankful for?
– What is your favorite food to eat on Thanksgiving?

Prompt questions inspired by

Budget Buster Tips                                                                              
– Grow your own flowers for drying. Harvest them throughout the season. Prep them and hang to dry until ready for use.
– Recycle flowers from old floral arrangements before discarding them. Baby’s breath, statice, and yarrow are examples. Whenever I do floral arranging programs throughout the year, I always use flowers that can be dried, and then harvest them from the old arrangements or leftovers after a program.
– Can’t afford pumpkins for each person? Get a handful of pie or Jack pumpkins, and have your group work in small teams to strategize and decorate a “community” pumpkin.