Perspectives Online

Horticultural therapy means eliminating barriers and connecting to the natural world at the New Hanover County Arboretum.

Horticultural therapist Phyllis Meole (third from left) directs potting activities for a senior citizens' group at the Ability Garden worktable. Photo by Becky Kirkland

A wheelchair-bound young man named David smiles as, close to his chest, he grasps a giant leaf from an elephant ear plant. By finding the leaf, he has accomplished his assignment in the scavenger hunt that he and his special education classmates are enjoying on a sunny October day as they tour the arboretum at New Hanover County's Cooperative Extension Center. It's all part of their experience at the arboretum's Ability Garden, which is both a special gardening classroom and a Cooperative Extension educational program. There, horticultural therapy Extension agent Phyllis Meole, assisted by Master Gardener volunteers, provides therapeutic horticultural programming for children and adults with all types of developmental, mental and physical disabilities.

The Ability Garden (above) is adjacent to New Hanover County's Cooperative Extension Center. The banner near Meole (below) says, "Bringing people of all abilities and plants together in a safe learning environment."
Photos by Terri Leith
"David is really interested and engaged, holding that elephant ear," says Kim Thompson, special education teacher at New Hanover High School. "In the classroom, he sometimes 'shuts down,' but here the students get so much sensory stimulation in a good way. This is my favorite field trip - and we have a mini-ability garden at school, so they can continue the experience."

Thompson's assessment means Meole has achieved with this class exactly what she always hopes to accomplish through the Ability Garden - engagement with participants and replication in the community.

"My pride in this program lies with what you see today," Meole says. "As a horticultural therapist I'm looking for engagement with the individuals who come out to the Ability Garden. I feel like it's my job to get them to pay attention to the garden, to the natural world - a yellow flower, a bright butterfly, the smell of sweet basil. That reaction could be very fleeting for the individual, but it's important to remember there's a person there.

"And when that engagement happens, I feel like (snap!) - We did it!" Meole says, with a strategic snap of her fingers.

Snap! David responds to a peppermint lily he's shown along the tour by Master Gardener volunteer Mary Ann Torres.

Meole (far left and right in photos above) and volunteers help a class of young Ability Garden participants with their gardening activities.
Photos courtesy North Carolina Cooperative Extension, New Hanover County
Snap! Student Alice reaches from her wheelchair to stroke the rubbery-soft evergreen foliage of a Japanese cedar.

Snap! Student Jeffrey spots the tall yellow flower that is his scavenger hunt goal. It's growing on a candle-stick plant, which sports bright yellow cone-shaped clusters of blooms that do look as if they could illuminate a room.

As could the delighted smile on Jeffrey's face.

And the smile on Kevin's face as he discovers his pink flower.

And on Carrie's face as she smells an herb and touches a green pepper from the pizza garden, where potential pizza toppings are grown.

And on Ben's face as he finds his purple leaves on a sweet potato vine, and later, in the Ability Garden classroom, as he pours potting soil in the recessed basins of the special table where the students learn to pot rosemary plants.

Snap! Snap! Snap!

"Phyllis is very focused and loves working with classes and is so good at it," says Melissa Hight, New Hanover County's Cooperative Extension director. "She's now the horticultural therapist and the first Extension horticultural therapy agent, directing the program, doing it all, with help from volunteers. But by January, we hope to hire a new Extension horticultural therapy agent to oversee the program, so Phyllis can concentrate on serving as horticultural therapist, primarily working with participants and supervising an intern, who will sign on for a year-long commitment to become a registered horticultural therapist," Hight says.

What Meole most wants people to know about the program is that horticultural therapy at the Ability Garden is not about gardening for the handicapped.

"We're about eliminating barriers that people might encounter in terms of enjoying nature and sensing a connection with it," she says. "Because this [she gestures toward the arboretum], nature is the real world. And for individuals with challenges, this is the world we need to be sure we connect with. I think it gives people a sense of security to know they are part of a larger picture. I think it certainly gives a sense of hope."

The horticultural therapy program at New Hanover's Extension center is not only unique, but makes a statement about Extension's willingness to address the needs of all people in the community, Hight says. "And we want to make sure that the program continues to be viable, because there is a huge need for it."

Gardening projects can become works of art - accomplishments that participants can take home as souvenirs or gifts.
Photo courtesy North Carolina Cooperative Extension, New Hanover County
The Ability Garden, which serves New Hanover and neighboring Brunswick, Pender, Duplin and Onslow counties, is a unique first program and one not available anywhere else in the southeastern United States, according to information provided by Meole. It was established in 1999 by the New Hanover County Arboretum Foundation to address the needs of a substantial disabled population: The 2000 Census, counting only the non-institutionalized children and adults, tallied nearly 20 percent of the New Hanover County population as disabled.

The program serves a range of participants from very young children to elderly adults, with a range of physical, mental and sensory limitations. Last year, the Ability Garden had more than 2,700 daily users. Participants are referred to the program by hospital-based rehabilitation programs, as well as area social service agencies. Clients include the physically and mentally challenged, special education classes, at-risk youth, physical rehabilitation patients, adult day care and nursing home residents, the chronically mentally ill and individuals with age-related disorders or long-term illness. Disabilities of participants include spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer's disease, cerebral palsy, head trauma and stroke.

The Ability Garden provides its clients specially designed, hands-on activities in a working-garden outdoor classroom. There is a shelter for shade, housing accessible worktables and raised garden beds, along with adaptive tools and equipment. Participants explore gardening through the use of those facilities and equipment in a structured therapeutic program. Projects include planting seeds, transplanting, learning methods of propagation, watering, fertilizing, pruning and harvesting.

Therapeutic benefits can lie in the areas of cognitive development, psychological growth, emotional benefits and prevocational work skills development.

"The lessons Phyllis teaches through horticulture promote self-esteem, teamwork, self-sufficiency," says Hight. "And it takes a lot of people to make it work, a lot of volunteers."

Two of those volunteers during the NHHS class's October visit are Master Gardeners Barbara Walker and Torres.

"Horticulture as a therapy is a way to engage individuals, as are art and music," says Torres, as she helps lead the students into a greenhouse. "And this is something they can possibly pursue as work."

Clients from a range of ages and capabilities enjoy activities in a fun, low-stress and fully accessible arboretum environment (middle), while the Ability Mobile (top) takes the program out to the community.

During a summer internship at the New Hanover Arboretum, CALS graduate student Martha Hayes (pictured on the bottom holding a plant potted by an Ability Garden participant) compiled a how-to manual for creating a horticultural therapy program at other facilities or Extension centers.
Photos by Becky Kirkland and Daniel Kim
For those who can't come to the arboretum, the Ability Garden comes to them, replicating its program at public schools, senior centers, adult day programs, nursing homes and vocational placement agencies for the mentally disabled. "We're taking the program into the community with our new van," Meole says, referring to the arboretum's new Ability Mobile, a brightly decorated GMC van that is used to bring tubs, soils, shovels, plant materials to the off-site settings for Ability Garden classes. Meole also provides consultation to help community groups develop gardening programs at their locations.

"We have tremendous support from our county commissioners and county government," Hight says. "We have also received funds from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Foundation and several other private foundations." Such support has enabled the conversion of a conservatory into an indoor classroom so the program can be offered year-round.

With Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation funding, the Ability Garden in September initiated a horticulture therapy program geared to individuals recovering from stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury and other long-term health challenges. "Our focus will be on gardening activities and techniques that promote learning in a fun, low-stress and fully accessible environment, and through which connections will be made between the natural cycle of life and the healing process," Meole says.

"Now we're dealing with health care practitioners to try to get people referred and recommended to the program."

Reaching those individuals and replicating the Ability Garden in the community are among both Meole's and Hight's current goals for the program. "We would like to see other Extension centers explore the possibility of establishing horticultural therapy programs," says Hight.

Definitive steps in that direction recently have been made. Martha Hayes, a CALS graduate student in Agricultural and Extension Education, who worked with Hight and Meole this past summer, compiled Building a Horticultural Therapy Program, a manual on how to replicate the Ability Garden model. Using the New Hanover program and facilities as her model, Hayes put together this manual so Extension centers and other settings, such as public gardens, would have a resource for creating a horticultural therapy program. A how-to video was also created, including a virtual visit to the New Hanover Ability Garden.

Creating the manual fulfilled part of Hayes' Extension practicum for AEE course credit, but the experience means much more to her. "I hope to become a leader in Extension horticultural therapy programming - using plants to help people improve their quality of life," says Hayes, who gives a glowing review of her time at the Ability Garden.

Hayes also served as Hight's liaison last summer, when NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty and representatives of Victory Junction Gang, a Randleman camp for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, sought landscaping and horticultural assistance from the CALS Department of Horticultural Science. They also expressed interest in adding horticultural therapy programming to the camp. Hayes reports that in September, the camp's board unanimously approved adding horticulture therapy to camp activities. Plans are under way to build facilities at the camp and begin the programming next summer.

Hight hopes this turn of events is a harbinger of fulfillment of a wish of her own - that N.C. State will start a horticultural therapy curriculum, or at least offer an introductory course.

In mid-October, the value of such a curriculum was portrayed vividly at the Ability Garden, in the faces of girls and boys who are challenged by life on so many levels. On this day, they discovered "that they are part of this natural world of plants and living things," as Meole puts it - and also that they had the ability to pot a rosemary plant to take home as a gift.