Horticultural therapy helps young people in Vancouver

Therapeutic gardens boost mental and physical health

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      Tucked away on the campus of B.C. Children’s Hospital is an oasis of sorts. It’s a therapeutic food garden frequented by young inpatients and outpatients in programs run by B.C. Mental Health and Substance Use Services.

      Julia Thiessen, executive director of the Environmental Youth Alliance, gave the Georgia Straight a tour of the eight plots, five barrel planters, and berry patch behind the Mental Health Building. The Vancouver-based nonprofit built the garden two years ago in partnership with the Provincial Health Services Authority and regularly conducts therapeutic-horticulture sessions there for children and youth being treated for eating, mood, and other disorders.

      Thiessen recalled how one girl diagnosed with schizophrenia benefited from harvesting lavender to make bouquets.

      “She would smell the lavender, and it would remind her which voices in her mind were hers,” Thiessen said, seated at one of the several picnic tables on-site. “So just the smell triggered this sense of calm for her.”

      At one end of the garden, chives, kale, parsley, and radishes grow in raised beds used by the child-psychiatry unit and the adolescent psychiatric inpatient unit. There’s a “digging pit” for releasing pent-up emotions and energy.

      Meanwhile, a round area will soon be home to a bean tepee where kids can hide. One of the nearby barrel planters is filled with lemon balm, mint, and sorrel.

      On the other side of the garden, there’s a compost bin, a tool bin, and plots for patients in the provincial specialized eating-disorder program.

      “They have lots of herbs here, as well as lots of vegetables,” Thiessen said of these patients. “They grow zucchini and cucumbers and celery and carrots and lettuce—and lots of flowers, too. Because of their sensitivities to food, working with the herbs and the flowers is a really nice entry point for them.”

      According to Thiessen, the garden has plants growing year-round that stimulate all of the senses. She noted that it’s free of stakes and sharp objects as well as herbs with strong medicinal properties.

      Thiessen said patients recently made a kale salad and herbal tea from crops and built a “worm hotel”. Gardening encourages them to try new things, helps them deal with phobias, and gives them a sense of stewardship, she explained.

      “Part of being outside is just feeling the wind on your face and the sun on your skin, smelling things, and hearing the geese fly by,” Thiessen said. “All that adds up to a sense of well-being. It’s been documented that nature can play a really strong role in healing and wellness. So we’re just a piece of that puzzle, trying to encourage people to be outside and see those connections.”

      Patients grow food in a therapeutic garden behind the Mental Health Building.
      Stephen Hui

      Aimée Taylor is a registered horticultural therapist in Vancouver. She works for B.C. Housing as the coordinator of its People, Plants, and Homes program, which provides tenants with opportunities to grow food crops and take gardening workshops at public-housing sites around the province.

      Taylor told the Straight that a therapeutic garden is a kind of healing garden. She pointed out that gardening can reduce anxiety and stress while boosting self-esteem and physical health.

      “When you talk about a therapeutic garden, it’s usually when it’s being used by a specific group of people, usually in their programming to increase their wellness,” Taylor said by phone from South Vancouver.

      According to Taylor, “horticultural therapy” refers to gardening-involved treatment programs that have defined objectives. She’d like to see health-care professionals prescribe this form of therapy more often.

      “It’s hard to get horticultural therapists funded,” Taylor said. “So a lot of our work is doing what we call therapeutic horticulture, which is where you’re doing gardening with people and you’re not creating all these specific written goals and sitting down with the client and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to try and achieve today, and this is what we’re going to expect to achieve at the end.’”

      The George Pearson Centre and other Vancouver Coastal Health facilities have therapeutic gardens.
      Courtesy Sarah Wenman

      The George Pearson Centre and Banfield Pavilion on the Vancouver General Hospital campus are two Vancouver Coastal Health residential-care facilities in the city that have therapeutic gardens. Pearson is home to more than 100 adults with severe disabilities who are younger than residents of most extended-care facilities.

      Ron Stedman, supervisor of recreation therapy at Pearson, told the Straight that 30 or so residents gather every Tuesday in the wheelchair-accessible garden outside Ward 1. Residents learn from master gardeners and decide what flowers, fruits, and vegetables to grow in their plots.

      According to Stedman, Pearson’s garden is a site of recreation therapy, which involves reconnecting people who have suffered illness or injury with leisure activities that are meaningful to them. He asserted that gardening improves the residents’ quality of life.

      “Whether it’s a vegetable or a flower, it’s very fulfilling and satisfying to work through that process for anybody,” Stedman said by phone from the centre. “For folks that are dealing with the kind of disabilities that we’re dealing with here, I think there’s a real therapeutic benefit from that.”