Category Archives: Professional Development

The Accessible Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

This article has been published collaboratively with eatbreathegarden and Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association’s People-Plant Interactions. Authors Lesley Fleming, HTR, and Kathy Carroll, HTR, have previously written articles together, sharing a common philosophy of the power of plants and the role of horticultural therapy in health and wellness.

By Lesley Fleming, HTR & Kathy Carroll, HTR

Photos: L. Fleming

Intended to welcome visitors of all ages and abilities, the Anne Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a visual and experiential delight. Like other public gardens including Dallas Arboretum, Naples Botanical Garden, and Ringling Museum, the addition of children’s gardens in the last five years reflects a trend signaling an interest in attracting a younger/family demographic. A 2015 study determined that 55% of 163 public gardens [investigated] included a children’s garden and an additional 26.4% planned to add a children’s garden in the near future (Kwon, 2015).

IMG_4286_LFleming_SelbyAnne Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The design of gardens, specifically children’s gardens, seek to offer “people plant connections…to provide the richest experience” using all five senses, according to landscape designer Mark Kosmos (2013). More than merely a visual experience, he suggests that “integrating opportunities for tactile, olfactory, auditory, and taste provide a more memorable experience.” Embracing this multi-sensory and interactive construct, Selby’s Children’s Rainforest Garden has been able to successfully integrate accessible features in a manner that is creative, safe, and appealing to a broad spectrum of visitors.

Universal design principles and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations guided the garden’s accessibility plan. Without drawing attention to who or how accessible features are used, experiences within the entire garden including its tree house, epiphyte canyon, 12 ft. waterfall, and multiple play areas are inviting, whimsical, safe, and inclusive. The garden’s thoughtful design has reduced physical and psychological barriers.

IMG_4273_LFleming_SelbyChildren’s Rainforest Garden entrance

Entering the Children’s Rainforest Garden from the paved path of the main garden, the transom seamlessly joins the children’s garden path, made of composite materials, reducing any potential tripping hazard. It also eases any physical challenge of navigating the slight grade of the elevated 9 ft. wide path that encircles the banyan grove’s aerial roots. Raised toe rails prevent anyone or anything (stroller, wheelchair) from falling off the path.

IMG_4279_LFleming_SelbyRainforest Garden’s tree house with elevator

IMG_4334_LFleming_SelbyTree top level elevator

The Rainforest Garden’s single point entry and exit reassures adult companions that children can explore with some degree of independence, and cannot leave without being seen. The entrance’s sight line reveals a two story tree house, drawing visitors into the tropical oasis. Choices abound. An outdoor elevator is cleverly incorporated into the tree house structure (key available at three locations close by) or alternately a winding graded path with non-slip surface and handrails leads up to the canopy treetop level.

IMG_4328_LFleming_SelbySwinging bridge

Once up top, two swinging bridges afford a bird’s eye view of the surroundings as do adjacent platforms. Safety netting, handrails, and width sufficient for parent and child to move side by side across the bridges provide an exhilarating experience. People in wheelchairs would find this garden feature not as accessible; steps onto the bridge and the bridge’s path surface would be difficult to maneuver. For those with other physical challenges like sight or hearing impairment, autism, balance, or strength issues, these swinging bridges afford challenges that test and reward one’s sense of adventure and willingness to overcome trepidation.

IMG_4298_LFleming_SelbyRound swing

Offered as an alternative to the swinging bridges, a round-shaped swing is available in the grassy play area at ground level. Suitable for those with mobility or sitting challenges, the netted swing can accommodate one or more, in both seated and prone positions, providing the thrill of swinging, motion, and bilateral movement, the latter often a focus of physical therapy.

IMG_4313_LFleming_SelbyResearch camp area with hands-on activities

Nature-based hands-on activities like plant stampings, swinging hammocks in the research camp, and large piece puzzles challenge visitors to think, reason, or have imaginative playtime. Regularly scheduled programmed activities supplement the free play of the garden. For days when temperature and humidity are high, the garden offers a nearby indoor play space stocked with nature-based activities: flower shaped puzzles, building blocks, plant stencils, dress-up clothing, and more. Used throughout the year regardless of temperature, this indoor space extends the playability of the garden and is often a welcome respite for families with multiple children, especially babies.

IMG_4278_LFleming_SelbyMoreton Bay Fig tree

The creative use of sensory stimulation provides a different type of accessibility in the garden — the psychological feeling that there are no barriers — the “I can do this experience.” Hearing the sound of musical instruments (xylophone) or roar of the waterfall, feeling the rough texture of the canyon walls or the fine mist sprayed on visitors, smelling the fragrance of trees and plants, looking at rainforest food plants — bananas, pineapple, papayas, as well as seasonal edibles in raised beds, climbing on the massive buttress roots of the Moreton Bay Fig broaden the garden experience. The mission statement — “To create a Children’s Rainforest Garden at Selby Gardens that is a safe, natural place for young children and their families to develop a life-long appreciation for the living world through outdoor play, discovery, and learning” — incorporates the accessibility strategy alongside the educational/environmental framework.

IMG_4289_LFleming_SelbyMulti-tiered steps that doubles as an outdoor theater

There are a few limitations to accessibility in the Children’s Rainforest Garden.  Some areas are not fully accessible by those with mobility challenges; the swinging bridges, the multi-tiered steps that double as an outdoor theater, and a short ground-level path under the sloped upper path (too low hanging for most adults and the path’s surface is difficult to navigate for wheelchairs, walkers or strollers). Alternate options are adjacent to the tiered step/theater area and the path under the path. Braille signage and audio signals, available at many gardens, are not currently available.

The Children’s Rainforest Garden has been successful in attracting a younger demographic who seem delighted to play, look, and explore in this little part of the larger garden. Selby’s ability to provide an accessible children’s garden space is commendable, particularly using the more current definition of accessibility– “usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest range of situations for people with or without disabilities”. The genius of the Children’s Rainforest Garden is its ability to offer inclusive experiences to all visitors, blending its accessible features into a beautiful, playful garden setting.




Cooper Marcus, C. & Sachs, N. (2014). Children’s Hospital Gardens. Therapeutic Landscapes An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley and & Sons.

Kosmos, M., & Bell, M. (2013). Distilling the Essence of Children’s Garden Design. AHTA News Magazine. 41(2).

Kwon, M., Seo, C., Kim, J., Kim, M., Pak, C., & Lee, W. (2015). Current Status of Children’s Gardens Within Public Gardens in the United States. Electronic version retrieved April 27, 2016, from


This article has been published collaboratively with and Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association’s People-Plant Interactions. Authors Lesley Fleming, HTR and Kathy Carroll, HTR have previously written articles together, sharing a common philosophy of the power of plants and the role of horticultural therapy in health and wellness.



Guided Imagery: Chasing the Cold Away with Colorful Blossoms

Editor’s note from Susan: My sincere thanks to the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association for giving us the opportunity to share this piece on guided imagery by Lesley Fleming, HTR. The script was originally written and published during the winter, but it can be adapted for a variety of groups and at any time of the year, especially at times when access to the outdoors is limited or in reminiscing or imagining about a visit to a tropical garden.

Text and photos by Lesley Fleming, HTR

Reprint permission granted by the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association

One of the techniques used by horticultural therapists for a range of populations is guided imagery. The term guided imagery refers to a wide variety of mind/body techniques, including visualization and direct suggestion using imagery, metaphor, and storytelling.

Permission is granted to use the guided imagery script below. Consider having live plants or photos of the plants [to accompany the activity].

So as the cold days continue and shorter daylight hours affect your mood, think of beautiful flowers in every color of the rainbow. Close your eyes and picture yourself walking along a garden path. The birds are singing, and the breeze is deliciously warm. The flowers sway with the wind and bring a smile to your face.

Confederate jasmine

A lovely fragrance fills the air, not too sweet but enough to make you take notice. Opening your eyes to petite white star-shaped blossoms of Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), the green leafed vine is wrapped up and over the arbor, climbing without tendrils. The mix of white and green is soothing, romantic, and fragrant. Am I remembering this from a wedding or a picture of a wedding?


Moving deeper into the garden, a swath of color awaits. Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivars) seems to be everywhere, in this garden and elsewhere. Those unfolding blooms that last but one day offer tropical shades of fuchsia, yellow, orange, and red. The shrub with more than 4,000 varieties seems to relish the warm weather, inviting ladies to wear a blossom in their hair or tempting one to make hibiscus tea for a hot sunny day.

Bird of Paradise

A taller plant with interesting shaped greenery is but a few steps away now. The orange, yellow, and blue on the blossom appears to be a bird in flight. Is it Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae)? They say the colors emerge from the distinctive green pod and sturdy rigid stem over several days. Is it true that this plant is part of the banana family and some varieties can grow as tall as 20 ft.? (correct) I would like to see this with my own eyes.

What is that orange-yellow flower that looks like a top hat? The blossom is growing from the branch, with no stem. It has a long tube in the center which remains upright, and the petals have released and dropped down to become the brim. I am not as familiar with Chinese Hat plant (Holmskioldia sanguinea), sometimes more commonly refer to as Cup and Saucer or Mandarin Cup.

Have you ever seen a shrub that has several shades of colorful blossoms all at one time? There is a plant sign that reads Kiss-Me-Quick (before I fade), with the botanical name of Brunsfelsia spp. Some know it as Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. In the space of a few days, the first opening of the blossom is a lavender color that fades to a lighter purple and eventually to white. Right now the shrub has all of the colors at once. Nature is wonderful.

Gazing the length of the garden is a mass planting of about 20 red, 24-inch-tall weeping green stems. A child calls out Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis).  Looking at one plant more closely, the tiny tubular blooms are attached to the stem. There are few leaves, and the red color is fire engine red.

Chenille plant

This garden is full of color and scent. Reach out…can you touch that plant?  It looks like a pipecleaner, those soft pliable craft items. The long, soft, red bloom is actually a spike covered in hundreds of (male) flowers. It is the red stamens of these—not petals that are the velvety delight in my hands. Nowhere to be seen are the female flowers of this Chenille plant (Acalypha hispida), but the green leaves make a lovely counterpoint to the red softness.  


Bresler, D. (2005). What Every Pain Therapist Should Know About Guided Imagery. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2015, from

Cleveland Clinic (nd). Guided Imagery. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2015, from

MacCubbin, T. & Tasker, G. (2002). Florida Gardener’s Guide. Nashville, Tenn.: Cool Springs Press.

WebMD (2014). Guided Imagery: Topic Overview. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2015, from


The Guelph Enabling Garden – Something for Everyone

By Lesley Fleming, HTR
Photos by Trisha Muldoon and L. Fleming

Enabling gardens originated as barrier-free space for people with physical disabilities. The more current understanding—one that is less restrictive and more inclusive—is one where all visitors are engaged in the garden through programming, garden features, and plant selection (Diehl, 2013; Cooper Marcus, 2014). Enabling people of all ages and abilities to garden with fewer barriers reflects the evolution of this type of healing garden.

Workshop attendees enjoyed a garden tour showcasing key elements of the Guelph Enabling Garden. Photo credit: Trisha Muldoon

The Guelph Enabling Garden (GEG) is an excellent example of this newer trend. While hosting an educational forum in June 2015, with a program titled Horticultural Therapy Programs that Excite, Excel and Engage, the garden welcomed community members, horticultural therapy (HT) practitioners, and health service providers. The workshop included an informational session on nature-based recreational and therapeutic programming targeted to improving health, as well as a tour of the enabling garden, led by GEG’s registered horticultural therapist Heidi Torreiter. Demonstrating how effective a therapeutic garden can be for activities and programming of all kinds, Torreiter and co-presenter Lesley Fleming, HTR, delivered three hands-on activities used in HT programming, including the making of small flower bouquets, an active game to increase physical activity, and a meditation session.

Programs geared to a broad spectrum of groups and individuals are offered throughout the year at the garden. Horticultural therapy, along with recreational programs like Staying Well in the Winter, Soil Compost Water, and Sense Based Activity, appeal to wellness groups and people with visible and invisible health challenges. Delivered by professionally credentialed staff, the programs in this beautiful garden setting with its abundant natural materials contribute to the popularity of the programs.

Set in a public park and adjacent to several senior citizen facilities, the physical location of the Guelph Enabling Garden further increases access, particularly for neighboring elders. Collaborative relationships with organizations, including the seniors’ facilities, provide for designated planting areas, specific programmed activities, and a volunteer base from those who have participated in garden activities.

Raised beds at various heights help to minimize physical barriers to gardening. Photo credit: L. Fleming

The physical features of the Guelph Enabling Garden define it as one that reduces barriers to gardening. For home gardeners and program participants, raised beds at several different heights, hanging baskets, container gardens, wide and smooth paths, signage, and plant selection like lavender, spirea, and soft wormwort provide ideas for minimizing physical barriers.

The Spiral Garden at the Guelph Enabling Garden. Photo credit: L. Fleming

Designed as a circle that overlooks the nearby Speed River, the Spiral Garden  offers a venue for special events. Small enough for intimate poetry readings and large enough for wedding vows, it has been used for gatherings and group activities of all kinds. The beauty of the garden set beside the river offers an added layer of nature within the city limits.

Observing the visitors to the garden—children delighted by the fairy garden, people with mobility impairments moving effortlessly along accessible paths, seniors from next door digging in the dirt, a cyclist slowly pedaling past the mass floral display, a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities planting herbs with the horticultural therapist, tourists looking for zone 5 plant specimens to consider for their own gardens in Michigan or Nova Scotia—there is something for everyone at the Guelph Enabling Garden. It is where beauty and function merge for passive and active plant and human interactions.

Diehl, L. (2013). A Framework for Categorizing Healing Gardens. American Horticultural Therapy Association News Magazine 41(2) 4-6.

Cooper Marcus, C. & Sachs, N. (2014). Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces.

Celebrating National Horticultural Therapy Week!

Happy First Day of Spring! We are celebrating National Horticultural Therapy Week during this first week of spring. As we enjoy the ephemeral beauty of the new season, check back all this week for new posts in honor of the use of horticulture as a therapeutic modality. Learn more about the practice of horticultural therapy through the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

A Visit to the Garden for Professional Development

As a therapeutic horticulture practitioner, I find it invaluable to network with professionals who incorporate horticultural therapy or therapeutic horticulture into their work, as well as with others in allied professions, such as occupational therapy, social work, therapeutic recreation, art therapy, animal-assisted therapy, music therapy, horticulture, and more. It can be lonely and unchallenging to work in isolation, so I have developed friendships and working relationships with these professionals and enjoy the shared camaraderie, experiences, and brainstorm sessions. These relationships inform my work and help me to stay relevant and on track.

How do I connect with these folks? Get involved with professional organizations, such as the American Horticultural Therapy Association, and attend their annual conferences and continuing education opportunities. And I don’t just focus on HT-related organizations. For example, the Garden Writers Association has helped me to hone my communication and business skills. Reach out within the community and seek out like-minded people at wellness fairs or other community organizations. I find out about interesting individuals from the newspaper or colleagues and “cold call or email” them in order to connect. Form your own official or unofficial regional network of professionals, such as the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association.

So in honor of networking within horticultural therapy, I am excited to host another guest post on eat|breathe|garden. This time, registered horticultural therapists Kathy Carroll and Lesley Fleming talk about how a visit to a Florida public garden cultivated their networking friendship and professional work.


By Lesley Fleming, HTR, and Kathy Carroll, HTR
Photo credits: L. Fleming & K. Carroll

What do two horticultural therapists talk about when they have a chance to go to a garden for professional development?

The historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, Florida, beckoned us as plant enthusiasts and horticultural therapists – Kathy from Michigan and Lesley from Florida: one visitor and one resident. Recognizing that time with a peer can be an opportunity for professional development as part of the continuous process of acquiring new skills and knowledge related to one’s job, the visit went something like this…

The plants are amazing…

Kathy: Having visited Sunken Gardens over the last 35 years, entering this unique masterpiece of outdoor space is like coming home. Each and every time, I see new and familiar favorite plant specimens. The 50 foot high multiple plant/colored bougainvillea hedge that runs hundreds of feet long is a show stopper when in bloom. It is a reminder of the significance of a century old garden (purchased by George Turner in 1903). The psychological and sensory experience the garden offers as it wrap its arms around the visitor is a sanctuary—an anchor, which slows the frenetic pace of the 21st century just beyond its boundaries. The smells of the soils and scents of flora stimulate the senses like nothing else.

Lesley: The old growth of so many of the trees and vines, some from the original 1920’s garden, is something not often seen because of the desire for perfectly shaped and sized plant specimens. This garden demonstrates how foliage and its dominant verdant green color can provide the beauty—it doesn’t always have to be the Disney eye-popping color of flowers. Many Florida gardens rely on foliage, which is often associated with the tropical look.

I’m working on an article on black plants. Can you help me spot any in the garden?

Kathy: I see black seeds from Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis),

Chinese fan palm seeds

…black elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’),

Black Magic elephant ears

…and the tops and undersides of croton leaves (Codiaeum variegatum).


Lesley: Yes, black plants can be interpreted as dark saturated colors – browns, reds, purples, and not necessarily black per say. *Confirmation of plant identification and plant names was undertaken after the visit.

What is that plant – do you know the name?

Spiral ginger, sometimes called red tower ginger (Costus comosus)

Spiral Ginger

Angel trumpet (Brugmansia)  *plant parts are poisonous

Angel trumpet

Bromeliad (Aechmea fasciata) with its pink bloom



What makes the design of this garden so interesting?

Shell Ginger

Kathy: Part of it is the history of the garden as a 1920’s residential garden built from a drained lake, including a sinkhole 15 feet below street level, a “soothing rock,” and very fertile soil. Their mission statement refers to the garden as a tropical forest with many of its original plants preserving and enhancing this unique tropical rainforest space. In the early 1920’s, Mr. Turner was charging a nickel to tour his garden.

Lesley: Sunken Gardens offers a sense of discovery, fascination, and spatial organization — elements that Stephan and Rachel Kaplan (environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan) refer to as landscape preferences. This effectively engages the visitor through a variety of elevations and twists and turns of the paths, gates and hidden garden “rooms.” The very tall plantings provide a sense of seclusion and sanctuary.

Other attention grabbers include shell gingers, mass plantings, scented gardenias (stepping off the path for that sensory experience), signage of plants though limited, and reciprocal admission from American Public Gardens Association (APGA) garden memberships.

What is that?

Kathy: What is that fragrance in the Wedding Garden, the tree with multi-colored bark, and the colorful vine?…

Lesley identified fragrant confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides);

Confederate jasmine

gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), which is sometimes affectionately called the sunburnt tourist tree;

Gumbo Limbo

Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia macrophylla), which is a larval plant for Pipevine Swallowtail and Tailless Swallowtail butterflies.

Dutchman’s pipe

Lesley: What are those seed pods, groundcover that looks like chenille plant and those markings on stems?

Kathy identified the fishtail palm fruit (Caryota mitis);

Fishtail palm

dwarf chenille plant (Acalypha pendula) [not pictured] with its shorter upright growth habit for use as a groundcover or trailing plant in a hanging basket;

the signature design left from scars on selloum (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) when leaves yellow with age and fall off.



Horticultural therapy inspirations from the Sunken Gardens

  • Glory bush (Tibouchina) – Lesley first used glory bush at the Naples Botanical Garden in Florida, when delivering a program to people with visual impairments for soft and fuzzy tactile stimulation
Glory bush
  • Variety of leaf shapes for leaf painting activity (therapeutic goal includes working fine motor skills – hand dexterity by tracing and painting leaves)


  • Accessible paths with manageable grades, smooth surfaces, and otherwise safe environment


  • Sensory walks, including treasure hunts for numerous and varied scents, visual and tactile horticulture finds throughout the garden.

Professional development can occur in any number of settings and is made more interesting when discussion and hands-on experiences are shared with others who share a passion for their profession.


Brown, Sydney Park and Rick Schoellhorn. (2006). Your Florida guide to perennials: Selection, establishment, and maintenance.

Kaplan, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective.