Archives For Horticultural Therapy

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

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely familiar with some of the challenges facing older folks: your muscles may get weaker and ache more readily. Falls can do more damage. Your energy and endurance may wane, and your skin may get thinner. Your eyesight and memory many not be as sharp, and your fine motor skills may become less coordinated.

What can the estimated 85 million U.S. gardeners do to continue gardening as they age? Gardening provides so many physical and emotional benefits that it’s well worth pursuing. The activity may even improve problems associated with aging, such as depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and poor sleep.

PHOTO: Garden volunteer Lauren waters lettuce seedlings in the greenhouses.

Keeping active in the garden is what our volunteers love best.

So let’s explore some ideas that might help you continue gardening despite these challenges. I’ve found that prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners—the four “P’s,” if you will—enable many older gardeners to carry on.

There is no better place to start than prevention. Since recovery takes longer as we age, let’s make sure we have less to recover from. Make a solemn oath not to go out to the garden until you are wearing proper footwear! Even if you plan to just survey the yard while barefoot with your first cup of coffee, danger lurks! Without shoes, you are more likely to fall or sprain an ankle. The damp grass can be slippery, and uneven surfaces can lead to a twisted ankle. Falls can lead to serious complications and are best avoided. 

Take a few minutes to limber up your joints, especially your back and legs, before you start working in the garden. You will be much more comfortable if your muscles are warmed up. Surprising them by pulling a stubborn weed can cause pain and injury that could have been avoided. 

Remember to protect your skin. That means sunscreen, a hat, gloves, and loose, light clothing. Invest in a pair of really good gloves that you will keep on no matter what the task. Cuts and abrasions in the skin of the hands are an invitation to infection. Likewise, protect your eyes from extreme brightness with sunglasses. 

Prevention even applies to the end of a day in a garden. Make sure to put away all tools and to coil all hoses away from walkways. Painting the handles of tools with bright colors make them easier to spot in the garden or lawn. 

Preparation is the next area where the time spent will be repaid handsomely.

PHOTO: A container box planting of rosemary, sage, eggplant, and smaller blooms.

Containers along a path are an elegant solution to reducing overall garden space, and making seasonal plantings easier to maintain.

Begin with a critical appraisal of the areas you tend. Note what you enjoy most as well as what you dread doing. Look at quantities of plant material, and consider the age and condition of your trees and shrubs. This is an opportunity to make some well-considered decisions and create your ideal garden. Whether you implement changes all at once or gradually, your ideal should include your favorite plants and tasks in manageable proportions. 

If you do a lot of pruning regularly, decide if that is pleasurable to you. If not, hunt for some woody plants that maintain their shape naturally. If your perennials have grown into huge beds, decide if you would be just as happy with less. If so, remove your extra perennials and offer to friends or garden clubs. 

If you have been forceful and unsentimental with your removal decisions, you are likely left with some empty areas that need to be filled. This is a critical juncture. In order to avoid swapping one huge garden for another, see if you can cluster your remaining plants into smaller beds. Absorb some of the newfound space with trees or shrubs that provide structural interest, but are low in their demands. Of course, you can always plant more grass, but groundcovers do a nice job with less chemicals and mowing. Another possibility is to begin raising your garden to an easy-to-reach height. Use containers or create raised beds so that you can tend the plants without getting down to ground level. Perhaps all that space where plants have been removed can be re-envisioned as walking paths among containers and beds. 

Positioning is the third area to think about.

As you revise your garden, keep in mind that reaching down to ground level and up over your head are positions that demand a lot of energy. You will tire quickly unless you can work more in the midrange of your reach. Containers and raised beds bring the soil level up nicely. A raised bed that allows a comfortable approach with a knee space for sitting while facing the bed is ideal. A ledge for side sitting works for short periods of gardening. Try using a pulley system to bring hanging containers down to a workable level and then raise them back up again. 

Finally, let’s think about partners.

PHOTO: Two scoop-shaped grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

These scoop-shaped, grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

Partners in gardening can be human—perhaps hired help for the most demanding or onerous tasks, such as removing weak trees. Partners can also be the wonderful tools that bolster your body’s ability. A tool that has good leverage, sharpened edges, and smooth operation of moving parts is a joy to work with. An increasing number of ergonomic tools are on the market. Look for larger, nonslip grip surfaces, handles that allow for two-handed manipulation, tool holders that distribute the workload over more than one joint, and carriers that keep tools safe and handy. 

Prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners can have you gardening for a lifetime. Such a healthy hobby is worth the time and effort it takes to keep it enjoyable.  

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Create Your Own Horticultural Therapy Containers at Home

An ideal horticultural therapy garden consists of three components: accessible planters, comfortable surroundings, and lush, sensory-rich plantings.

Clare Johnson —  May 17, 2014 — 1 Comment

It’s finally starting to feel like spring in Chicago, which means it’s time to get those home gardens up and running.

In the Horticultural Therapy Department, we’re in the process of setting up our off-site gardens at facilities all over the greater Chicago area. These gardens come in all shapes and sizes and fall on a wide spectrum of costs. For today, we’re focusing on how to create your very own home horticultural therapy garden—or perhaps more accurately—your own home horticultural therapy containers.

PHOTO: Three container plantings of varying heights.

Three containers at various heights create visual interest in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

To start your own home horticultural therapy garden, the first thing you need is a good container. At the Buehler Enabling Garden, as well as off-site gardens, horticultural therapists utilize raised, round containers for planting. 

We recommend that you purchase a planter of decent size (24 to 28 inches in height and diameter) or a few slightly smaller ones. This will enable you to plant a wide variety of plant materials—from grasses to small perennials, herbs to large vegetables. Also, be sure to use a container with drainage holes to avoid root rot and water logging.

The next item you’ll need is a rich, nutrient-filled, potting soil. If you’re using a large container, filling the entire container with soil will make it heavy and difficult to move. Placing light, mesh landscape materials in the base, such as Better Than Rocks drainage medium (sold in rolls of bright green mesh), or household items like empty water bottles and landscape fabric, will help keep your container light and decrease the amount of unnecessary soil.

PHOTO: A circle of Better Than Rocks planting mesh is cut out of a roll of the material, and placed in the bottom of the pot.

Find Better Than Rocks drainage mesh—used in the bottom of our pot—at your local nursery.

With the container(s) set and filled, we are now ready to plant our home horticultural therapy garden.

Gardens planted with a horticultural therapy intent often consist of plant materials that are engaging to the senses and good for programming. When I refer to “programming,” I’m speaking to the desired slate of uses for the garden. Your “program” may be to provide yourself or a loved one with an easily accessible personal garden to tend to and enjoy. It may also be to grow edibles that can be picked, prepared, and shared with friends and family.

Being in a garden facilitates therapeutic outcomes and interacting with plant material enhances the therapeutic experience that much more. By selecting plants that will encourage activity, you are increasing the likelihood for therapeutic outcomes.

Some of my favorite horticultural therapy-inspired plant pallets are those with a variety of textures and sensory qualities as well as pallets that bring about seasonal harvest.

DIAGRAM: Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

In the first sample illustration, I’ve laid out a container of sensory-rich plant material as one option for your garden. Start with a “thriller” or focus plant such as a Pennisetum rueppelianum grass or Caladium X hortulanum (1). This plant can be placed along the side or in the middle. I like to place my focus plant slightly off center in my containers. Next, add some filler sensory plant materials such as Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Kong Red’ coleus (2) and perhaps an edible plant such as a Stevia rebaudiana (3). Stevia is one of my favorite horticultural therapy plants; the super-sweet leaf makes for a fun treat when maintaining your garden. The final plants are your trailing or spilling plants. This will bring added visual interest to the outside of your container and give your garden that extra pop. I love to use Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’—Sweet Potato Vine (4) and/or Calibrachoa x hybrida—trailing petunias (5)

Each of these plants has wonderful sensory qualities. The grass stalks or large caladium leaves provide soft fascination as they rustle in the wind. The coleus and stevia add visual texture and color while also lending themselves to programming. The coleus plants can be picked and used for flower pounding, pressing, or for propagation. The petunias can be used for pressing flowers, and at the end of the season, you can dig out your sweet potato vine and eat the tuber/potato at the root. 

DIAGRAM: Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting.

Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting

The second illustration—and container—has been laid out to focus on edible plant material. This planter would be ideal for a household that would like to have fresh harvest for cooking activities and experiences. A cherry tomato plant such as Solanum lycopersicum ‘Sun Gold’ (1) can easily be grown in a container. This variety performs very well in our climate (USDA Zone 5) and produces delicious, orange-colored cherry tomatoes. Tomato plants will get leggy as the season goes on, but certain plant material can be placed next to a tomato without interfering with or overpowering it. I enjoy placing a few varieties of herbs in my edible planters. In this example, I placed Ocimum basilicum ‘Super Sweet Genovese’ basil (2) and Thymus vulgaris, or garden thyme, (3) with my tomato, so that I could make delicious items such as fresh pizza, bruschetta, and tomato-basil-mozzarella paninis throughout the summer. Lastly, because it’s an absolute favorite, I snuck in a few Lavandula angustifolia ‘Mini Blue’ lavender (4) plants. These can be used for pressing, drying for sachets, and pure sensory enjoyment.   

A horticultural therapy garden is about enjoyment and interaction. At the end of the day, you want it to be something that you enjoy caring for.

During this time of year, local nurseries and stores are chalk full of garden experts who will be happy to help set you up with all the materials you need. And remember, staff and volunteers are always available at the Chicago Botanic Garden to instruct you on fun and simple gardening basics; just come visit us and ask!

Happy gardening!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org