Archives For Horticultural Therapy

Pantone Color of the Year: ‘Greenery’ and Its Many Benefits

This year, Pantone chose 'greenery' as the color of the year. Read about the many benefits of green and why it is so important in every day life.

Clare Johnson —  March 2, 2017 — Leave a comment

The 2017 Pantone color of the year has us doing somersaults at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Pantone’s “greenery” has inspired us to discuss the importance of green space and nature’s role in our well-being.

Every year, Pantone selects a color of the year. This year’s color selection, “greenery”—a revitalizing shade “symbolic of new beginnings”—inspired us to discuss the benefits of spending time in nature with our Horticultural Therapy participants—a conversation worth sharing with the entire Garden community.

January's Gardening for Life Enrichment project: Eucalyptus Sensory Mobile.

January’s Gardening for Life Enrichment project: Eucalyptus Sensory Mobile.

The color “greenery” brings many images to mind: lush forests, fruits and vegetables, fields of grass, and wild jungles. Being in spaces of green, or viewing them from inside, brings about psychological and physiological changes in our bodies. It slows our breathing, reduces stress, and encourages us to take in what is around us. 

Why does “greenery” impact us the way it does? There are countless reasons why we feel calm, restored, and connected while in nature. Largely, it is because we are connected to it as human beings. The Biophilia theory, formulated by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, teaches us that because our survival has been linked with nature (water, shelter, food), our love of it is built into our DNA. 

Being in green space allows us to rest our minds. More specifically, it allows our directed attention a chance to restore. Directed attention is what we use to concentrate on the day-to-day tasks—sending emails, conducting meetings, taking exams, etc. Our directed attention can quickly become fatigued when it is overworked. This is where nature comes to the rescue.

According to researchers Rachel and Steven Kaplan, nature provides us with elements of “soft fascination,” such as watching tall grasses in the wind or listening to a babbling brook. These elements engage our involuntary attention—attention that is reactive to stimuli and doesn’t take cognitive effort—and when our involuntary attention is engaged, our directed attention gets to take a break. Creating opportunities to take breaks in green space has been statistically proven to increase concentration and alertness, happiness, and connectivity—no matter one’s age, ability, or background. As we like to say, nature (or “greenery”) is one of the best vitamins you can take to keep up with the hustle and bustle of life. 

Watching butterflies is one of the many ways nature provides us with "soft fascination."

Watching butterflies is one of the many ways nature provides us with “soft fascination.”

Theories and studies, such as the ones listed above, have inspired a resurgence in restorative landscapes. This resurgence has led to outcomes such as the following: greater number of gardens in healthcare facilities; nature-based curriculums and education centers (e.g., the Nature Preschool at the Garden); and professional development opportunities such as the Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network in the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Healthcare Garden Design Certificate Program.

There are many elements one could incorporate when creating a therapeutic green space. When we design a garden with therapeutic intentions, we include some of the following features:

  1. A 7:3 vegetation vs. hardscape ratio (70 percent vegetation; 30 percent hardscape)
  2. Opportunities to engage with nature, such as raised beds/vertical plantings with high sensory plant material
  3. Elements of soft fascination (e.g., water features, tall grasses, bird feeders, butterfly gardens)
  4. Accessible and comfortable garden elements (e.g., smooth surfaces, ample shade, and seating areas)

Most importantly, we design spaces that create a positive distraction to the everyday experience. It is important that spaces of “greenery” evoke joy and excitement, engaging visitors in the space with or without planned activities. 

Landscape design rendering using a full range of greenery-shaded markers. (Designer: Clare Johnson)

Landscape design rendering using a full range of greenery-shaded markers. (Designer: Clare Johnson)

Visiting a green space, even viewing one from inside your home or office, brings about positive and impactful changes in our bodies and minds. It is one of the most universally accessible and free healthcare resources in our modern world. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. We believe strongly in the power of “greenery” and its impact on our health and well-being. Through thoughtful display gardens, designs, programs, and research, we continue to educate the public and inspire future generations to become stewards of the environment. After all, a little “greenery” goes a long way.

Interested in learning more about the importance of green space for health and well-being? Read about the upcoming seminar, Gardens That Heal: A Prescription for Wellness on May 10, 2017. 


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Planting well-being: near and far

How the Horticultural Therapy Department makes an impact on a communities health, education and wellbeing.

Clare Johnson —  October 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

This year, the Horticultural Therapy Services department consulted with a wide range of organizations to bring the healing power of nature to communities across the globe—from Illinois to the Philippines. 

This past spring, the Horticultural Therapy department was contacted by Park School—a self-contained public therapeutic day program in Evanston, Illinois—to develop a plant-based therapy program alongside its staff and students. This program was generously funded by Foundation 65, the educational foundation for Evanston-Skokie School District 65. 

Throughout the spring and early summer, we planted and tended an accessible, outdoor container garden as part of the students’ therapeutic curriculum.

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Planting sensory containers with a student at Park School

Park’s devotion to its students, community, and environmental education landed the school a grant from the GRO1000 grassroots grant project. This grant enabled Park to contract with the Chicago Botanic Garden to design a permanent sensory garden for the school. 

As the design consultant, I led the garden design steering committee—comprised of Park staff; Mary Brown, Ph.D., of District 65; and Park’s PTA—through the design process, resulting in an accessible and engaging sensory garden design set to be installed on October 14 and 15. 

The Park School Sensory Garden boasts elements such as an outdoor classroom with overhead pergola, accessible garden shed and raised containers, hanging sensory planters, and a memorial garden. Park School will be hosting a volunteer day on Saturday, October 15, for local community members interested in getting involved in this fantastic project. The volunteer day will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a garden dedication at 2 p.m. 

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Rendering of the Park School Sensory Garden (Clare Johnson)

The restorative power of nature knows no bounds, and we’re fortunate to be able to provide consulting services to organizations near and far. When Rachel Jones, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Philippines, contacted us in early 2016 asking for design guidance, we immediately said “yes.”

Rachel works at a nonprofit organization called My Refuge House. It’s a shelter for girls who have been rescued from commercial sexual exploitation and abuse. Two years ago the shelter switched from a highly clinical track of therapy to one that is more culturally relevant and uses alternative approaches. As a professional who had previously worked with horticultural therapy, Rachel created a project and received a grant to create a healing garden on the property for group therapy and individual meditation.

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Collecting cuttings from community members for the healing garden

Rachel and I discussed some of the fundamental principles of therapeutic garden design, including but not limited to private and public gathering spaces, lush plantings, smooth paving, shade structure/trees, safe perimeter, moveable seating, and so on.

Rachel engaged the local community while constructing the garden. She shared a story about how she collected some of the plant material: “Today we went on a hike up the mountain, where the shelter is located, to ask people for cuttings from their plants. We met great people and they were all very generous in providing plants for our garden.” When planning a garden, involving your community is a great way to increase the ownership of a space, and the devotion to the mission.

It was wonderful to read the updates from Rachel as they came to the end of the installation. 

My Refuge House

The Healing Garden at My Refuge House in the Philippines

When the garden was completed, they hosted a dedication ceremony memorializing the hard work that had gone into the creation of the healing garden. It was an honor to be a resource for this incredible project, and we hope to have a powerful effect on many other communities, moving forward. 

The healing power of nature, much like these projects, has no limits. Something as small as a shady nook with a gliding swing can make a world of difference for someone in need.  

Find more information about the project at My Refuge House by visiting the Peace Corp volunteer’s blog


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Each year, the Horticultural Therapy Services department plans, plants, and programs outdoor pop-up gardens all over the greater Chicago region as part of the offsite program offerings. From colorful sensory plants to delicious edibles, these therapy gardens have something for everyone. 

The Horticultural Therapy Services department’s summer programs engage participants of all ages and abilities in bi-weekly, plant-based activities in an outdoor pop-up garden. The summer season begins with the implementation of the garden in mid-May and lasts throughout the entire growing season. Pop-up gardens give participants the opportunity to plant, maintain, and enjoy the many benefits of a garden—from watering on a hot day to picking (and eating) vine-ripened tomatoes.

The programs thrive with the assistance of facility participants and staff, and this year, the participants weighed in on some of their favorite plants and activities as we enter into the second half of the summer season. 

PHOTO: A greenhouse full of the plants we use for our many activities on- and offsite.

A greenhouse full of the plants we use for our many activities on- and offsite.

Favorite 2016 Sensory Plants:

Each year, plants are selected to engage participants across the sensory spectrum. Grasses for sound, herbs for taste, and lambs ear for touch—just to name a few. The participants have been enjoying the wide range of plant material, with a few standouts in 2016:

PHOTO: Summer harvest: greens, strawberries, and pickles.

Summer harvest: greens, strawberries, and pickles

  • Cucumis sativus ‘Patio Stacker’ (Cucumber)
  • Fragaria × ananassa ‘All Star’ (Strawberry)
  • Gomphrena globosa ‘Fireworks’ (Globe flower)
  • Lagurus ovatus ‘Bunny Tails’ 
  • Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’ (Pineapple mint)
  • Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’ (Basil)
  • Setcreasea pallida ‘Purple heart’ (Purple heart)
  • Solanum lycopersicum ‘Tumbler’ (Cherry tomato)
  • Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Gay’s Delight’ (Coleus)

In early summer, the participants enjoyed sweet strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa ‘All Star’)a first for the summer offsite gardens—and learned how to appropriately trim and tame the basil (Ocium basilicum ‘Genovese’)At Shriners Hospital for Children, the patients and staff said they could “hardly keep up with all the basil.” Sounds like it’s time for garden pesto!

Favorite 2016 activities:

Planting: Participants learn how to remove plants from the cell packs, loosen the roots, and appropriately plant each item. Each year they take great pride in planting their garden and documenting the plant growth. 

PHOTO: Using a watering wand to reach planters.

A watering wand is a fun and easy way for everyone to participate in tending the garden.

Watering and maintenance: On hot, summer days, watering the garden provides nourishment and relief to plants and people alike. Watering is one of the most vital needs for a thriving garden and thankfully, this calming and restorative experience is inclusive of all program participants. No matter the age or ability, participants can use a lightweight watering wand and hand-over-hand assistance.

Garden lemonade: As a sweet relief at the halfway point of the season, we planned a “Garden Lemonade” activity, utilizing fresh herbs for homemade simple syrup and garnish. The activity was designed to allow participants to taste the difference between homemade and store-bought lemonade. For our fresh lemonade, the participants squeezed fresh lemons into a pitcher, added homemade simple syrup—1 cup sugar in the raw, 1 cup hot water, and fresh muddled mint leaves—and ice to create a refreshing summer treat. Additional herbs and sweet blueberries were added as garnish and enjoyed by all. 

PHOTO: Garden lemonade is a total hit—and delicious on a hot day.

Garden lemonade is a total hit—and delicious on a hot day.

Upcoming Summer & Fall Activities:

As the season moves along, the participants will continue to tend to and utilize the fruits of their labor. Later this summer, participants will plant fall crop seeds—leafy greens, carrots, radishes, and herbs—and create a pasta salad for our “Garden Pasta Party” summer finale. The pasta party activity is designed to engage participants in a healthy garden-focused cooking activity, one that can be easily replicated at home. The horticultural therapy participants will prepare their own personal salad to pack and share with family and friends at home.

As much as we enjoy summer, we always look forward to the fall season with our offsite contracts. This fall, we’re planning to extend the harvest season with cold crops and more culinary activities. We’ll also repot and propagate many of the plant varieties for over-wintering and compost or donate the rest. 

With luck, we’ll successfully grow a few mini pumpkins for a favored horticultural therapy activity: fall mum pumpkins, and roast seeds before concluding the offsite programs in mid-November. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It was on a seasonably pleasant day this past May that 15 veterans from the Thresholds Veterans Project began a journey to be well in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

PHOTO: Chalkboard plant pot.

Inspirations: “Keep Going” planter, with a side of coffee.

We toured the garden, got to know each other, and sipped on coffee. Lots of coffee. The activity I led was called Inspirational Herb Dish Gardens and was intended to provide these vets with a lovely planter of kitchen herbs to cook with, as well as a message of encouragement they could reference for inspiration in their daily life. After the first retreat was done, I thought to myself, “Wow! That was a really good program!” And it was. It was really good. Over the course of the summer, these vets returned to the Garden five more times to participate in various retreats all focused on wellness and using nature to heal.

To date, more than 2.7 million people have served our country during the most recent conflicts. Approximately 1 million of these veterans have accessed the VA healthcare system for war-related injuries. Many of the injuries sustained on these missions are unique in that they are “invisible” wounds of war—traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are difficult to diagnose, yet have large impacts on a veteran’s life. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, irritability, and physical pain. Other common injuries sustained from these missions include musculoskeletal and missing limbs. For some, reintegration into civilian life, family, society, and employment may be difficult. In fact, even vets who were not technically injured in war often experience anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, and other stresses that inhibit their readjustment.

PHOTO: Vets gather in the garden, discussing plans.

Growing more than plants in the garden; friendships and individuals flourished this summer.

Veterans who have not had success with traditional medicine often begin to seek out alternative ways to heal. That is where the Garden comes into play. We believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people. We also believe people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. I witnessed the amazing effects interacting with nature has on people this summer as veterans—some on the verge of homelessness—planted the Buehler Enabling Garden with summer annuals, overjoyed to return and observe the garden flourishing throughout the season. I witnessed veterans—some participating in in-patient psychology programs—get a pass from the hospital to come to the Garden and learn to rake a dry garden in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. I witnessed veterans—some clinically depressed—smile and laugh, as they dug potatoes from the ground in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

PHOTO: Vets digging with pitchforks.

Veterans dig deep for potatoes and for well-being.

Each of our six retreats was filled with creativity, education, companionship, and joy. As the summer progressed, so did the veterans, each of them growing stronger and more healthy in their special way, each of them changing and striving to be well. Our group started to call the Enabling Garden “our garden,” and the plantings we planted became “our plants.” Participants would tell me that this day (the day they came to the Garden) was the day they looked forward to the most. They would tell me how amazing the Garden is, and how safe they felt here. It was music to my ears, and I felt so proud of them.

It was easy to draw comparisons about healing, being well, and growing to gardens this summer. Gardens start small and respond to weather and temperature. They grow and change with the season. Sometimes they start to fail or get crowded out, or overgrown; sometimes they need to be watered or groomed to flush out new growth and blooms. With care and attention, however, they grow, and flourish, and bloom. They are like us. We are small sometimes. We are big sometimes. We respond to things that happen to us or things we do. But with love and care and attention, we can grow, we can bloom, we can be well. Gardens start over and each year is a new year. We can start over, too, and each day is a new day.

PHOTO: Veterans planting in the rain.

Vets plant rain or shine in Operation Summer Change-Out.

I saw this summer how powerful gardens can be in helping people to heal and maintain wellness. Our program was effective because it created a sense of belonging and comradery, and fostered a feeling of continuing to serve, which is an important value to many vets.

As Veterans Day approaches, remember the people who have served, put their lives on the line, and are still fighting today. Thank them, salute them, and honor them.

I was honored to work with this amazing group of veterans, who became an inspiration in my own life. And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to deliver such a wonderful program.

You can help valuable Chicago Botanic Garden programs make a difference in people’s lives. Click here to donate to the Annual Fund.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Harvest Activities for Horticultural Therapy

How best to utilize the resources of your therapeutic garden before closing down for the winter.

Clare Johnson —  October 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

I make no secret about the fact that fall is my absolute favorite season. Between the pumpkin-spiced treats, falling leaves, warm-toned landscape, and endless fall activities, I simply can’t get enough of the many opportunities that fall brings. 

Fall also happens to be my favorite season for horticultural therapy. This exciting time of year is when all the off-site therapy gardens are reaping the benefits from their summer of hard work. The fall programs begin after a brief hiatus upon the completion of the summer program, and many enthusiastic gardeners return to plentiful crops and beautiful blooms just waiting to be enjoyed. 

Today I’m describing three of my favorite fall activities and their therapeutic benefits: fall planters, mum pumpkins, and harvest herb dip. 


Fall planters

PHOTO: Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Creating fall planters—either in a personal, tabletop container or raised garden bed—is a great way to prepare your garden for the fall while adding seasonal interest. This activity works well for a group of any size or ability. 

During this activity, our groups begin to remove overgrown summer crops for composting while replacing them with edible fall crops and autumn blooms. For our off-site therapy gardens, we typically plant cabbage, kale, onions, pansies, and mums. This allows the group one more opportunity to work in their outdoor garden before the impending first frost.  

Therapeutic benefits

This activity brings a cyclical close to the gardening season. In the beginning of spring, we discuss seed germination and the life cycle of a plant. It is important to relate this activity back to the spring to highlight how far the garden has come during the harvest season. The theme and symbolic nature of this activity—events coming to a close or new beginnings—is useful in horticultural therapy groups. Take time to think about how you can relate this to your specific audience and how the message can resonate with them—either as a group or individually. 


Mum pumpkins

The mum pumpkin activity is always a big hit in horticultural therapy. The supplies needed for this activity are as follows: one small pumpkin (I use pie pumpkins), a spoon for scraping, cut flowers, and floral foam. This activity can also be done using soil and cell-pack flowers such as mums or pansies. 

The mum pumpkin activity has two large components to it: the carving out of the pumpkin and the planting or arranging of the flowers. It typically takes a full 60 minutes for a large group of horticultural therapy participants to complete this activity as well as a decent amount of space. 

PHOTO: A pumpkin planted with a selection of fall mums.

Beautiful mum pumpkins created in an off-site horticultural therapy facility.

The first step is carving out the pumpkins. For many of the contracts, we like to wash and save the seeds for future baking enjoyment. Often, hand-over-hand assistance is needed in order to help our participants scrape out the pumpkin innards. This creates a wonderful opportunity for fine motor and rudimentary skill exercise. Once the pumpkins are clear, the floral foam can be inserted for the mum arrangement. (If you choose to fill your pumpkin with a planted flower, I would recommend using 1-2 cell-pack pansies per pumpkin.)

Therapeutic benefits:  

One of my favorite aspects of this activity is the sheer joy that radiates from our participants after they create a beautiful, seasonal centerpiece. This activity allows participants to create something that is their own, something with their favorite colors, and plant material that will bring them joy every time they see it. It’s important to insert activities such as these to encourage self-expression and promote joy. That, after all, is one of the greatest benefits to gardening. 


Harvest herb dip 

Our simple and delicious harvest herb dip has been a late summer and fall favorite for many, many years. Why is that? It involves a beloved activity for all individuals—eating! For our harvest herb dip, we collect fresh herbs from our garden as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and other goodies to create a delicious snack. 

PHOTO: Pepper plants.

Baby sweet peppers grow in the Christopher School Enabling Garden.

For our groups, we supply each participant with a paper bag and encourage them to pick items that they’d enjoy in their dip. We commonly collect chives, parsley, peppers, and cucumbers. Once each participant has collected their desired items, we head inside to wash and prep the ingredients. While the participants are chopping their various herbs and vegetables, the horticultural therapist and/or aides mix the two store-bought ingredients: whipped cream cheese and sour cream. We use roughly one 8-ounce container of cream cheese with 4 ounces of sour cream. (This recipe can also be made with greek yogurt in place of the sour cream. )  

With the base of the dip mixed, each participant gets a personal bowl of dip in which they can pour and mix their ingredients. Then, with some sliced cucumbers, peppers and crackers, the participants dig in! 

PHOTO: Student eating herb dip.

A student enjoys his homemade herb dip with garden cucumbers and peppers for dipping.

Therapeutic benefits:  

Inserting activities involving edible garden items is always rewarding. In my first year, I discovered that many horticultural therapy participants (namely students) had never seen a tomato, pepper, or cucumber grow on a plant—let alone one they tended to and cared for themselves. The therapeutic benefits for this activity relate to educational opportunities. We often take time to discuss what other food items can be made from our delicious garden harvest to get participants excited about healthy and sustainable foods. It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have picking and eating delicious vegetables! 

There are many more activities that one can do with a group or individual in a therapy garden during the fall season. Simple and inexpensive garden-maintenance activities provide wonderful opportunities for socialization and conversation regarding healthy practices for living things.

Fall is a beloved season by all of our garden groups, and it’s important to squeeze in as much time as possible in our outdoor therapy gardens before the midwestern winter knocks at our door. With the beautiful fall colors, plentiful harvest, and mildly cool weather—it hard to imagine a more desirable place to be than a garden.

Happy harvest! 


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org