- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

The garden at Sharpe Health, a school for children with disabilities in Northwest, is gorgeous, but it wasn’t designed merely to please the eye. It’s a healing garden that helps children improve their motor skills, instructs them in basic gardening and even teaches them the alphabet.

“We put in a hill so the kids can work on their motor skills, and we put in the alphabet garden so they can work on letters and words,” says gardener LeeAnn Schray of Lutheran Social Services for the National Capital area. She helped design the new garden at this public school and comes most days to help the children plant, weed, water and harvest.

The Sharpe Health garden is supposed to stimulate both the mind and the body of the students who use it, Ms. Schray says.

The concept of healing gardening — of gardening having healing properties — is not a new one. In fact, according to Lana Dreyfus, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Chapter of the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), it goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians.

“People nurture plants and

plants nurture people,” Ms. Dreyfus says. “Who doesn’t enjoy planting a tomato and then seeing it grow?”

AHTA, a nonprofit founded in 1973, promotes horticultural therapy and organizes conferences for its members.

Healing gardens have experienced a renaissance in the past decade, Ms. Dreyfus says, and there are at least 20 established healing gardens at schools, hospitals and other facilities in the Greater Washington area, she says.

While the concept of the healing garden is old, there is no set standard for what exactly a healing garden should contain, Ms. Schray says.

“It depends on your patient group,” she says. “If you have Alzheimer’s patients, for example, you want to make sure you don’t have any poisonous plants since they may eat them.”

Having a healing garden is not the exclusive right of those in health care. Anyone can do it, Ms. Schray says.

“You can have a healing garden in the back yard or even in an apartment by using containers,” she says. “I don’t think there is any one way of doing a healing garden. … I think it’s a matter of planting things that will give you enjoyment and fulfillment.”

If the gardener doesn’t want to spend that much time in the garden, native plants can be a good choice. Since they are native to the area, these plants often are sturdier and don’t need as much care.

As with any garden, it’s important to consider including plants that will add visual interest year-round, Ms. Schray says.

For winter interest, along with evergreens, a red dogwood can add color, creeping phlox will bloom in the spring and goldenrod and asters will be at their best in the fall. Summer bloomers include milkweed, black-eyed Susan and echinacea.

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At hospitals and schools, healing gardens provide a therapeutic space not only for patients and students, but also for staff, says Mary Wyatt, executive director for the Annapolis-based TKF Foundation, a group that helps fund healing gardens in the area, including the one at Sharpe Health.

“A healing garden can be healing on different levels. For staff, it can provide a way to escape the institutional setting after they’ve had a long shift,” Ms. Wyatt says.

At Kernan Hospital in Baltimore, where trauma patients are treated and rehabilitated, the garden is used by staff, patients and their family members, says Linda Hutchinson-Troyer, patient therapy manager at the hospital.

It was designed specifically for patients with neurological and orthopedic conditions caused by accidents and other trauma, to improve everything from motor skills to sense of smell and from strength to cognitive abilities, Ms. Hutchinson-Troyer says.

“We have a grassy area where patients can practice how to get up after a fall,” she says. “And we have different terrain patterns — from wooden to cobblestone to concrete — so patients can practice maneuvering, whether it’s in a wheelchair or using crutches.”

Stroke patients can work on recognition and reconstruction of smells, sights and sounds by being out in a garden, she adds.

Many of the same ideas translate to the garden at Sharpe Health, Ms. Schray says.

“One of the therapeutic goals is to make the kids physically stronger,” she says.

They dig, water and roll or climb on the hill to improve their strength.

On a recent morning, Ms. Schray and half a dozen children at Sharpe were planting fennel and lavender. Heavy rains in the days before had washed away earlier plantings.

“It’s fun to garden,” says Tyree Jones, 10, a student at Sharpe, while taking a break from digging. “We get tomatoes and carrots. They have a lot of dirt on them and you have to wash them before you eat them, but they’re good.”

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Ms. Schray tries to connect whatever the children are learning in the classroom with different aspects of gardening.

If they are learning about American Indian traditions, Ms. Schray shows how and why American Indians planted corn, beans and squash together. Evidently, the plants alternately use and supply nitrogen to the soil and the corn and squash helped shade the beans.

The school also has a “senses garden” where children can touch, see, smell, taste and even hear (mostly grasses rustling in the wind) the plants, many of which are herbs.

The alphabet garden has plants representing all the letters of the alphabet, Q stands for Queen Anne’s lace, R is for rosemary, S is for salvia, and so on.

The vegetable garden allows the children to see how a tomato plant can start as a seed and with care grow up to produce a tasty tomato.

“They plant the seed, then they see the plant grow and then they eat it. There is something very fulfilling about that,” Ms. Schray says.

The largest part of the garden is the native plant garden, which attracts butterflies with its milkweed, black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, sneezeweed, balloon flower and purple phlox.

Tyree enjoys the native plant garden a lot, and he has learned that care and attentiveness to the needs of the plans are important.

“You can walk in your garden and see all the pretty flowers, but you can’t forget to water. If you don’t water your plants, they will die,” he says.

Therapeutic gardeners predict that the popularity of gardening in general, and of therapeutic gardening in particular, will continue to increase.

“Any time you get folks out in the fresh air and have sensory stimulation, there is a healing aspect to the experience,” Ms. Schray says. “I think people are starting to recognize the benefits.”

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