Tag Archives: gardening

Celebrating Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, this month, we have been celebrating Mother Nature by getting outdoors and showing our gratitude in a number of ways. We have been admiring nature’s beauty and curiosities, noting our innate desires to connect with nature (biophilia) and the restorative effects nature has on us, brainstorming ideas of what actions we can take on behalf of our environment and other living things, and then taking steps to beautify our environment for ourselves, each other, and hopefully pollinators (if outdoors).

Check out the gallery of activities:

Cultivating soil can be a sensory engaging and grounding experience.
The act of nurturing a plant through watering and other gardening tasks can be a therapeutic activity.
Limited on outdoor growing space? Plant container gardens.
Or, plant hanging baskets to put on display. (Here, they’re waiting to be hung.)
Raised beds elevate gardening activities, making them more accessible for gardeners.
Pot up spring seedlings started from seed during winter.
Don’t have easy outdoor access? Propagate and transplant easy to grow houseplants that brighten up the indoors.

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.



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.

More Therapeutic Horticulture Programming Ideas for Spring

My oh my, it has been a busy April! In honor of Earth Day, I am sharing more of my favorite springtime therapeutic horticulture activities recently done with clients. Check out previous  spring activities here. Hope they inspire your work!

Kentucky Derby Floral Crowns therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenKentucky Derby Floral Crowns
Fashion wire into a circle to fit your head and use floral tape to attach mini bouquets of cutflowers. Embellish with ribbon, feathers, wired butterflies and birds, and VOILA – you have a floral crown that honors the tradition of the fancy and whimsical hat fashions from the Kentucky Derby. We used a combination of fresh, dried, and preserved flowers and foliage. Since the Kentucky Derby was a couple of weeks away from the day of this program, I used everlasting flowers – which are flowers that hold their shape and color even after they have dried – so that program participants would still have beautiful headwear after some time had passed.

Kentucky Derby Floral Crowns therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenHere, I used purple statice, sea holly, baby’s breath (I recommend using ‘Million Star’ with its large flower heads – I think it’s the best variety of baby’s breath for drying), strawflower, red spray roses (the red rose is the official flower of the Derby), goldenrod, yarrow, and preserved & dyed eucalyptus. [NOTE: When selecting plant material, be mindful of the toxicity of some of these plants, if this may be an issue with the group you are working with.] Some participants didn’t want to make a crown so they made bouquets, floral arrangements, or mini wreaths. Don’t forget to bring a handheld mirror so that participants can look at themselves wearing their handmade crowns!

During the program, we discussed the traditions and iconic imagery of the Kentucky Derby – mint juleps (I brought sprigs of mint to pass around), the garland of roses (red spray roses were available to include on the crowns), Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, the fashions of the hats and clothing, and Triple Crown. I shared Derby-themed fun facts and trivia. Some sources include KentuckyDerby.com and Wikipedia.

Seed sowing therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenSeed Sowing
Seed sowing is among the most loved activities with my groups, and sowing sunflowers has become an annual event for one group in particular. I think many of the participants like to know that they are planting something so tiny for future benefits, as well as enjoying getting their hands immersed in soil – the phrases “play in the dirt” or “making mudpies” are often heard.

Seed sowing therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenOther reasons: they enjoy the social and collaborative aspects of working with a partner to accomplish something important, like preparing the soil, filling pots with soil, and adding seeds to each pot; the “romance” of a sunflower, which, aside from the rose, is the most recognizable and embraced flower with elder clients; and the change in pace of the daily routine – how often do you get to go outdoors to “play” or stick your hands in soil?

In February we sowed nasturtium seeds, which are the size of peppercorns, and this month we planted the nasturtium plants out in the garden. In March and April, we have been sowing a variety of sunflower seeds for succession plantings. When the plants are ready, we’ll plant them in the garden – hopefully next month. The larger seed, like nasturtium and sunflowers, are easier for many of my clients to work with than small seed. I typically save the smaller seed, like parsley, basil, and black-eyed Susan vine, for challenging the skills and tolerance levels of individuals who are higher functioning.

SpringWreathSpring Wreaths
Use various preserved mosses, wired butterflies and birds, dried florals, and ribbon to embellish grapevine wreaths. To help save on program costs, plan ahead. Therapeutic Horticulture Spring WreathI buy wreaths, ribbon, and other materials when they’re on sale. (I stock up on red, green, and other colors of ribbon after Christmas, when they’re 75-90% off at my favorite craft store.) Or, I use my handy 40% off coupons at my favorite craft store – though, yes, it does require going into the store daily and using the coupon to buy one thing at a time. I also use everlasting cutflowers in other floral arranging activities and save and dry these flowers for future use. Even better, grow and harvest plant material from your own garden.

Spring gardening therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenOutdoor Gardening
‘Tis the season to be enjoying the outdoors! We have been busy planting a variety of seasonal annuals, herbs, and veggies.

Spring gardening therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegardenSpring gardening therapeutic horticulture eatbreathegarden