Growing therapy

Growing therapy

Therapeutic horticulture program helping to increase quality of life and well-being

By Christine Boatwright
Marcia Velasco

Marcia Velasco works with plants in the Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens.

Marcia Velasco never knew she had a green thumb. Her husband, a professional landscaper, handled all gardening responsibilities at the couple’s home until about a few months ago, when Velasco joined a therapeutic horticulture program at UF.

A Gainesville resident, Velasco served in the Army Medical Corps in the early 1980s. She was born with an extra vertebra and had her first back surgery in 1996. After falling out of bed 10 years later, Velasco faced life in a wheelchair.

Veterans GreenhouseIn April, Velasco joined the therapy program, a 16-week session, which is part of an ongoing study. The program promotes an active connection between participants and nature, which can increase quality of life and well-being. It also encourages participants to use fine motor skills and promotes cognitive exercises such as decision-making, said Leah Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture for the Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens.

The greenhouse, a 2,700-square-foot facility located at the corner of Gale Lemerand Drive and Mowry Road, opened in March 2014, but the program has been helping patients for about two years in borrowed campus spaces, said C. Craig Tisher, M.D., former dean of the College of Medicine.

“The greenhouse was designed and constructed to be completely accessible to people who are mentally and physically challenged,” Tisher said, noting that the adjustable benches were designed by mechanical and aerospace engineering students to accommodate people with disabilities. Every door can open automatically, and a sink rests lower than typical sinks to allow participants to access it more easily.

Veterans GreenhouseAn anonymous gift of $500,000 jump-started the fundraising campaign for the greenhouse, and Skanska construction group contributed initial services. In mid-2012, Tisher and other volunteers began applying for grant funding, which led to the development of future plans for the facility.

“What did we want to do when we grew up?” Tisher said. “We’re surrounded by buildings where there’s research going on, as well as education, and we said that’s what we ought to be doing too. This is very valuable property, and it’s part of a major academic health center. We ought to reflect the activities that are going on.”

The therapeutic horticulture program grew out of a collaboration with UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine. A study group of veterans with bipolar disease was meeting weekly with the Arts in Medicine program. Tisher and other volunteers asked the study participants to join a weekly, three-hour program using horticulture techniques to try to improve their quality of life.

To measure the program’s impact, participants fill out a number of standardized questionnaires that include inquiries about physical and emotional health, as well as relationships and social interactions.

After the 16-week session, some participants wanted to continue the classes. They have now participated in four sessions. Since then, the program has opened to additional study participants, including dialysis patients, veterans with bipolar disease and veterans with spinal cord injuries. A new study may open to breast cancer patients and survivors in the near future.

Veterans GreenhouseDuring Velasco’s therapeutic session, program director Diehl, a registered horticultural therapist, continually crosses the greenhouse floor to bring plants to Velasco that offer sensory diversity, such as a strong smell, interesting texture or vibrant color.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had dirt under my fingernails like this?” Velasco asked as she planted succulent clippings.

As her session concludes, Velasco’s husband is building her a handicapped-accessible gardening table at home so she can be a more active part of their gardening.

 “It’s more than I expected,” Velasco said of the program. “I expected a classroom-like setting without all of the interactions with other people. I learn something new every time I come. It’s just been wonderful.”