When U.S. Navy veteran Deanne Thompson, 52, signed up for a free group gardening class through the University of Florida’s Wilmot Botanical Gardens, she didn’t realize the stress relief benefits and social outlet she would gain.
“I needed to do something for me; a hobby that’s centering,” Thompson said. “It’s calming to be out there and messing around with plants. I like the camaraderie with the other women veterans. I don’t meet a lot of them. It’s nice being with women who have experienced the same things I have – we can relate.”
Thompson is one of five women veterans who regularly attend a weekly therapeutic horticulture program designed just for them at Wilmot Botanical Gardens, a program affiliated with the UF College of Medicine and Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Therapeutic horticulture is the participation in gardening activities facilitated by a horticultural therapist.
Typically, a horticultural therapist gains an understanding of the group’s goals and needs before developing activities for the participants. These actions include learning new skills in gardening that participants can do at home, socializing with fellow participants and introducing new plants and growing techniques to participants. Goals can address physical and mental health concerns.
“A lot of military men and women deal with post-traumatic stress disorder issues,” Thompson said. “Gardening is a great outlet because you’re in touch with nature, which is very calming. You can do as much or as little as you like. I tell everyone at the (Veterans Affairs) clinic about it.”
For the last six years, Leah Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture at Wilmot Botanical Gardens and lecturer with the UF/IFAS Environmental Horticulture Department, has been working with a group of male veterans who have various health issues. After earning proceeds from a Wilmot Botanical Gardens plant sale, Diehl wanted to add a therapeutic horticulture group for women veterans.
“When I first started working with the gentlemen (male veterans), there wasn’t a lot of facial expressions that were happy nor was there any talking,” Diehl said. “The longer we’ve worked with them, the more conversations and smiles we see. I really do feel like we’ve been successful in making them feel they belong here.”
As the daughter of a veteran, Diehl initially became involved in working with veteran populations through the local HONOR Center for Veterans, which provides homeless veterans healthcare and housing. After helping design a garden for the building with veterans, she saw the positive impact gardening had on veterans.
Greg McGann, a UF/IFAS Florida Master Gardener and licensed clinical social worker, regularly volunteers at the HONOR Center. With other Master Gardeners, McGann added to the gardens Diehl designed by making the garden fully accessible to veterans with walkers or wheelchairs.
“My most rewarding experiences are when the magic of gardening – from planting seeds and tending plants, to harvesting organic vegetables – resonates with a veteran and they assume responsibility for regular garden maintenance,” McGann said. “Many of the vets who join us had their own gardens or tended the gardens of parents or grandparents, so returning to the soil often seems to have an immediate calming effect, and that’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Diehl said VA clinics all over the country have begun to recognize the stress-relieving and calming effect of these gardens on their patients. By working with VA counselors, Diehl was able to promote her gardening groups to veterans.
Future goals Diehl has for the veterans’ therapeutic horticulture groups include utilizing tower gardens. “They love to build stuff and come up with solutions,” she said. “It’s something new and innovative, which is what they like.”
Veterans who would like to join a therapeutic horticulture group through the Wilmot Botanical Gardens can sign up on the website. Volunteers are welcome to help at the gardens and can fill out this interest form.