Plants Helping People

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North Dakota State students in the Introduction to Horticulture Therapy class took part in an opportunity to help local residents at the Touchmark at Harwood Groves retirement community in Fargo.

Alan Zuk, associate professor in plant sciences, brought his students to the community in March. Along with his students, Zuk brought plants, pots and soil to apply their coursework and bring about a positive psychological effect and improve the overall well being of the residents.

“Visits like this give the residents a nice change in their winter schedule and lets them know that spring is just around the corner,” Zuk said. “The field trips also give my students important hands-on experience working with various sectors of society that can benefit from horticulture therapy. With proper guidance, a good horticulture therapy program lets senior citizens exercise their hands and fingers to regain strength and dexterity. They can make new friends through horticultural activities, and working with plants is fun.”

Horticulture therapy is a time-proven practice. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association  (AHTA), “Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and recognized as the ‘Father of American Psychiatry,’ was first to document the positive effect working in the garden had on individuals with mental illness.”

“In the 1940s and 1950s, rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans significantly expanded acceptance of the practice,” according to the AHTA. “No longer limited to treating mental illness, horticultural therapy practice gained in credibility and was embraced for a much wider range of diagnoses and therapeutic options.”

Today, horticulture therapy is widely accepted as a beneficial and affective therapeutic model across a range of “rehabilitative, vocational and community settings.”

Horticulture therapy is used to assist participants in learning new skills or regaining ones they have lost. Horticultural therapy has been shown to improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills and socialization.

According to the AHTA, horticulture therapy can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance and endurance in physical rehabilitation settings. In vocational horticultural therapy settings, people learn to work independently, problem solve and follow directions.

“Seniors experience remarkable benefits from connecting to the earth,” said Nancy Clanton, community relations director at Tuscan Gardens of Venetia Bay, a retirement community in Florida that seeks to bring nature into the lives of seniors. “The practice of planting flowers and vegetables, getting their hands dirty and watching their efforts turn into beautiful results gives them a sense of empowerment that too often vanishes with age.”

At Touchmark, the plant varieties ranged from pansies to basil, tomatoes to geraniums and catnip to begonias.

Christina Bartos, the life enrichment assistant at Touchmark, expressed her acclaim for the event, stating, “What a wonderful experience for us. We have residents who are former gardeners, and being able to get their hands dirty again brings back a lot of memories of summer days gone by.”

The residents and students were joined by some second-graders from Eagles Elementary School. “This is really an intergenerational event today,” Bartos said. “It’s so great to see our residents interact with both college-age students and the second-graders.”

NDSU students Sheridan Amb, senior in psychology, and Christian Triplett, senior in agricultural systems management, praised the class and the event thanks to NDSU.

“We’re helping residents to come out of their rooms, be more social and treating them to a plant,” Amb said. “They just come up to the table, grab a plant and we help them put it in a pot. Handling plants is really great therapy for people of any age — it can do things like relieve stress or lower blood pressure.”

Triplett stated, “It’s a lot of fun to see the joy that plants can bring. It’s terrific to see the residents work with the plants and for them to spend some time with us and the little kids. This has been a really nice experience.”

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