How Does Your Garden Grow
In recent years, Wilmot Gardens at the University of Florida sat in disrepair — until C. Craig Tisher, M.D., former dean of the UF College of Medicine, started eyeing the space. Now, Wilmot Gardens is not only a preserved green space on campus, it also hosts a horticultural therapy program.
The program’s mission is to improve lives through engaging with horticulture, and since its inception, the therapeutic horticulture program has served a variety of vulnerable populations, including veterans with spinal cord injuries and mental illness, stroke patients, cancer survivors, patients with end-stage renal disease and young adults with autism.
“The goal is that every participant has a sense of ownership over this space,” said Leah Diehl, director of the Wilmot Gardens therapeutic horticulture program.
The program is based on the belief that an active connection with plants and nature can be a restorative experience and have a profound effect on quality of life. Within a greenhouse and garden environment the program seeks to decrease stress and mental fatigue, boost self-esteem and self-efficacy and provide community, creativity and optimism. Program participation is also extended to caregivers in many groups.
During the movement disorders group, which meets weekly for an hour, attendees have either suffered a stroke, have Parkinson’s disease or are the caregiver of a person with a movement disorder. Some attendees use canes. Another is in a wheelchair. But they’re all in the greenhouse for the same reason: a weekly therapeutic horticulture session.
“It makes for a comfortable atmosphere — and not all atmospheres are comfortable when you have Parkinson’s,” said Pat Mitchell, whose husband, Tom, has Parkinson’s disease. “It’s really calm in here. It’s just a very happy, peaceful building.”
The undisturbed ambiance of the Wilmot Gardens greenhouse also provides an ideal environment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
“Individuals with autism experience sensory reactivity. They can have a reaction to sensory stimuli, like noise,” said Ann-Marie Orlando, Ph.D., a research assistant professor with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. “The greenhouse is a place where it’s quiet, and it feels a little protected.”
The Wilmot Gardens therapeutic horticulture program received a $25,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation in September to fund new programming for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
The initiative creates job readiness for those with autism spectrum disorder by using therapeutic horticulture as a basis for learning communication skills, working on a schedule and completing tasks.
“This is an important part of self-efficacy,” Diehl said. “Their work is meaningful, and it’s something society values.”
The program schedule will be updated each semester. Enrollment is open throughout the semester for most groups and attendance at all sessions is not required to participate. Patients are encouraged to inquire about joining the programs at any time.