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Plants support, nourish, beautify…and change lives

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By MELODY JAMESON

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Melody Jameson photos
Aging hands, often afflicted by arthritis, can be among the first to benefit from the multiple therapeutic advantages of horticulture practices. Physical motions inherent in planting functions and the emotional soothing provided by green life environments have been documented for centuries.
SUN CITY CENTER – Plants and their produce, long the purview of farmers close to the soil, popular with nutritionists pointing to balanced diets, stock in trade for landscapers into beautification, are coming into their own here as the tools of concentrated therapy.

In the hands of experienced farmers, they grow bigger, more colorful, more flavorful while in the hands of skilled nutritionists they get different cooking treatments for varied tastes and in the hands of dedicated landscapers they make eye-catching patterns enhancing the environment. But, in the hands of trained therapists, they change lives.

Leslie Fleming who, by virtue of complex, university level training and proven practice, can use HTR after her name for Horticultural Therapist Registered, knows of her own experience.

While horticultural therapies now are being used in a wide variety of settings – hospitals, hospices, correctional centers, rehabilitation facilities, botanical gardens – Fleming’s practice in South Hillsborough primarily has been in assisted living environments such as Plaza West on the grounds of Freedom Plaza.

In this situation, the transformations can be comparatively small, but nonetheless life altering for participating individuals and their families. Fleming talks of the wheelchair-bound patient in assisted living visited daily by his wife of many years – a physically difficult, emotionally wrenching circumstance for any aging, close couple.

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Empty plant trays at the end of a horticulture therapy session in Plaza West give Jean Willis HTA (standing, left), a certified assistant in horticulture therapy, a good opportunity to discuss plant care with assisted living residents. Among the primary benefits of such therapies is useful practice for individuals with memory loss.
Their daily conversation seemed to center on his declining health, her trials in getting to the facility. But when introduced to therapeutic horticulture and the garden, “they both could enjoy one another and the connection to nature,” the therapist relates. He became more independent and willing to assume responsibility as the common activities of planting and watering raised beds of blooms or making bird feeders minimized his physical restrictions, she adds. It was “healthier for both of them and their relationship” as they worked together to make “his home as nice as possible” and the tone of their visits was changed markedly, Fleming recalls.

Degreed in a couple of areas related to political science, Fleming did a 180 degree turn into professional gardening as her family grew up. And it was during a decade as a Master Gardener associated with the Hillsborough County Extension Service that she learned of the various types of horticulture therapy, she says.

While horticulture is the art and science of growing plants, she explains, horticultural therapy is the practice of engaging people in plant and gardening activities to improve their bodies, minds and spirits.

The practice has a long, illustrious history dating back centuries. In 1798, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of America’s Declaration of Independence, was documenting how gardening improved the conditions of his mentally ill patients. And gardening was utilized in the U.S. Veterans’ Administration rehabilitation programs for returning WWII soldiers.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Fleming points out, research demonstrated, for example, that shorter hospital stays and less medication were needed by patients allowed a view of the natural outside environment. And, a recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject notes a 2005 study of 107 cardiac patients which showed their lower heart rates and better dispositions after a one-hour gardening class, compared with similar patients in a generic class.

Today, the therapy is practiced within four general categories: therapeutic horticulture, social horticulture, vocational horticulture as well as the horticultural therapy distinguished from therapeutic, Fleming notes. Her practice is primarily in the therapeutic area, she adds, which takes her into healthcare and residential facilities such as Plaza West where she tailors programs to individual needs.

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Tubs of dirt, trays of blooming plants and decorative flags were the makings of an afternoon horticulture session recently at Plaza West. Here, Leslie Fleming HTR (left, kneeling), a registered horticulture therapist, talks one on one with “Miss Beverly” (right) about recollections from her early life on a farm.
Twice a month, the therapist creates a gardening setting on the second floor where residents, both ambulatory and in wheelchairs, gather to practice activities designed to help. They may select blooming plants to be set in individual container gardens or they may make “tuffy muffies,” choosing cut flowers from bunches and tying them to produce ribbon-wrapped bouquets, exercising arthritic hands or diminishing decision making skills in the process. They may sow plant seeds in window boxes, thereby improving the pincer grasp, or water small plants in trays with a range of tools and thereby improve eye-hand coordination. Or, they may draw rather than carve faces on pumpkins, enjoying the texture, weight, form of the vegetable. Similar exercises are done with various citrus fruits, Fleming adds.

One of only 10 such therapists in Florida, credentialed by the 37-year-old American Horticultural Therapy Association, Fleming charges for her services, but suggests the satisfactions of witnessing life-altering changes transform and redirect people onto more positive paths also is invaluable reward. She points to just one of those situations eloquently captured in writing by a patient in an addiction program.

A victim of what the woman described as “severe, sadistic childhood physical and sexual abuse at the hands of my father and other relatives,” this client had turned to alcohol, trying to drown the pain. Addicted and diagnosed with a post-traumatic disorder, she was on the road back when she wrote gratefully of “the role horticulture played in my recovery.” Working “in the greenhouse, or on the grounds, was just what I needed at the end of a long hard day of spiritual, mental and emotional work,” she declared. The patient went on to thank the therapist for “your quiet supportive manner,” adding “the work in God’s earth soothed me tremendously.”

On her last day at her treatment center, this patient scattered in her facility garden the petals of a rose she’d saved from her father’s coffin cover. She allowed she knew “I had not laid him to rest” and recognized she wanted, needed “to say goodbye to him and move on with my life as a free woman.” Move on she did, saying that with the help of the garden she had come to “feel safe and comforted.”

“That,” Fleming summed up, “makes it worth it.”

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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