Veterans work in the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden Credit: Chicago Botanic Garden

At first glance the Buehler Enabling Garden just looks like another plot in the Chicago Botanic Garden, with brick-paved walkways, hanging planters, and raised beds filled with flowers. A closer look, though, reveals that the paths are flat and wide to accommodate people in wheelchairs, the hanging baskets are on pulleys that allow their heights to be adjusted, and the flowerbeds are at various elevations so that gardeners can work on them from a seated or standing position. A section of lawn is raised so that people who have difficulty getting up from the ground can sit on the grass, and in another area a garden is planted in a metal grid, allowing visually impaired people to count the squares and identify which plants they’re working with.

Anyone who visits the Botanic Garden can wander through the Enabling Garden, but its main purpose is to serve people who can benefit from horticultural therapy. Enabling Garden coordinator and registered horticultural therapist Alicia Green says, essentially, that means “the use of professionally directed plant and gardening activities to help restore physical and mental health. What makes it therapeutic revolves around the concept of stress relief. Interacting with live plants—there’s general research that suggests it lowers your stress.”

According to the website of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, in the early 19th century physician Benjamin Rush, often referred to as “the father of American psychiatry,” first documented the positive effect gardening had on people with mental illnesses, and in the 1940s and 50s hospitalized war veterans were treated using horticultural therapy. Expanding the practice from the mentally ill to veterans helped it to become more widely accepted, and today horticultural therapy is used, says the association’s website, “within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational, and community settings.”

Many scientific studies have documented that exposure to nature is associated with a wide range of health benefits, including lower stress levels, and lower risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and premature births. It has even been found to be associated with a lower mortality rate. A seminal study published in 1984 by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich showed that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery healed faster, needed less pain medication, and had fewer complications when they had windows with a view of trees rather than a brick wall. Subsequent studies have indicated that even looking at pictures of soothing scenes can be beneficial—but according to Green, there’s not much research on horticultural therapy. “A lot of what’s missing is the connection of the person there facilitating the activities [the horticultural therapist],” she says. “There’s a growing body of research that being in nature is therapeutic.”

In fact, she says, technically what her department does is considered therapeutic horticulture. “If you’re doing horticultural therapy, you’d be working with professionals, charting progress [of patients]. We are not privy to people’s charts or medical information. We’re supplementing their care but we’re not part of the treatment plan.” Her department does, however, have off-site programs at Shriners Hospital for Children and the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, along with some assisted living facilities, where Botanic Garden staff members work with patients to build and maintain gardens, often using herbs, flowers, and other plants chosen because they stimulate the senses.

The Buehler Enabling Garden
The Buehler Enabling GardenCredit: Chicago Botanic Garden

Green does the same thing in the Enabling Garden. “Every year I focus on color, on plants that have a tactile quality or a scent,” she says. “I really focus on plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, things that might make it interesting for people engaging in the garden. In the summer I have a favorite, scented geranium. It’s got a really nice velvety, fuzzy leaf. It doesn’t really flower, but when you rub the leaf it smells like mint.”

She also considers how she’ll use the plants in the garden’s classes. “In the spring I use a lot of fragrant plants—tulips, stock, violas, pansies. You can harvest and press them. A lot of what horticultural therapists do is use the products of the garden in their programming.” For example, pansies can be made into pressed flower bookmarks, cut flowers can be used for flower arranging workshops, and herbs are useful for cooking projects. The programming she does depends on who she’s working with, Green says. “The groups I get tend to be kids with a lot of special needs. The garden is set up for that; it’s a comfortable place for them to come if they have wheelchairs. Sometimes kids come with severe and profound disabilities, so they need a lot of sensory interaction.”

The Chicago Botanic Garden has one of the oldest and most comprehensive programs in the U.S.—the Buehler Enabling Garden opened in 1999, and the garden’s horticultural therapy program and first Enabling Garden launched 22 years before that. The garden now offers a horticultural therapy certificate program through the adult education department and in conjunction with Oakton Community College, where the participants get college credit. The 12-credit class is mostly online, Green says, but the students come to the Botanic Garden for a week of intensive programming and visit other therapeutic gardens in the area. There aren’t many, though. Green says that Rush University Medical Center is putting in a healing garden, and Growing Solutions Farm in the Illinois Medical District teaches urban agriculture to young adults with autism, but she doesn’t know of much else.

The Botanic Garden is often involved in consultations when hospitals and other facilities are planning therapeutic gardens, Green says, but “when the budget gets cut it’s the first thing to go.” Even other botanic gardens with horticulture therapy programs don’t always have their own department or a dedicated therapeutic garden. Maybe that’s because of the lack of formal research around the topic—but while she’s not formally evaluating the people who participate in the programs she directs, Green says the effect is noticeable. “Before and after, I can see the positive change in people’s mood as they’re outside, playing with plants.”   v