The Power of the Flower – Horticultural Therapy


Okay you flower addicts, nature lovers and freeloaders, sit on the couch and listen up. It's time for therapy! The experts have confirmed that gardening, my favorite addiction, is therapeutic. Hallelujah! "Horticultural Therapy" is a multidisciplinary program of study involving fields such as horticulture, psychology, landscape architecture, education, gerontology, sociology and urban planning.

Here's a shadow example of HT at work in my perfect life: Many moons ago, I worked with the actor James Woods on a film shoot. Let's just say he was "high maintenance." I came home on Friday nights in tears, mumbling obscenities as I rehashed "another week at the office" to my kind, patient boyfriend. Saturday mornings, I could not speak till I cleaned the demons. I would spend two hours sitting in my garden, alone, meticulously and fiercely pulling weeds, in a silent ethereal trance. Monday morning I'd be ready to face the egos again. . .

Last week I visited the wondrous garden at The Cedars Textile Art Center to see horticultural therapy at work, right here in Marin County. Since 1919, the Cedars has provided a special community for more than 2500 individuals with developmental disabilities. In 1981, the Cedars Textile Art Center was created by founder and Director Connie Pelissero. Her dream was to combine her interests in textiles and special education. With the help of longtime Co-Director, Denise Colwell, over 70 clients a day are provided with training and employment in textile weaving, organic gardening and animal husbandry on 21 spectacular rural acres.
And it all looks so organized, peaceful and healthy! (Nothing like a film set …)

I met with Amy Whelan, the Garden Coordinator / Queen Bee, who has been teaching and working at the garden for over sixteen years. She refers to the land as a "mini-garden of Eden." When you first enter the Cedar's garden, traveling along the winding path down the hillside, you know you have just crossed the threshold to a sacred place. Fruit trees, wild roses, hollyhocks, iris, lavender, penstemon and various tall, climbing beans and peas surround you. A painted sign reads "The Earth Laughs in Flowers." Here new clients are taught how to make compost, grow seeds, water plants, weed, prune and nurture the earth. Many of these clients will go on to teach these same skills to schools who come visit. The cycle of life is demonstrated here starting with compost, a seed, a flower, a wilted flower and back to the compost pile to begin again.

In the Cedars garden, clients of all ages ranging fro 20 to 80 yrs. old use horticultural therapy to promote healing and learning. Working in the garden provides a positive sense of wellbeing, problem solving, teachers new skills, social interaction and communication. Whelan sees the benefits from working in a garden first hand with her clients. "Everyone who enjoys gardening knows that working with plants fulfills basic human needs. Through horticultural therapy, you can facilitate these benefits with people on many levels."

She explains the three main areas of horticultural therapy: social development, psychological and physical.

Social Development:

Gardening teachers new skills and vocabulary, helps people gain independence, helps them make new friends as they work cooperatively towards common goals, and increases attention span and concentration in easily distracted individuals.


Gardening meets nurturing need through taking care of living things (plants), encourages creativity, self-esteem and responsibility by project selection and design, and decreases stress, anger and aggressiveness.


Gardeners enjoy activities as they increase strength and range of motion using fine and gross motor skills. They also have access to near limitless opportunities for year-round exercise and relaxation in serene garden settings.

Whelan adds, "In the spring we have many schools visit the garden. " Schoolchildren who visit may be taught by Todd Williams, a client who is supervising the greenhouse on the morning I visit. We bond immediately over the magic of seedlings. "I like to teach the children about planting seeds. I share their excitement with what may sprout. And I like their high energy !," says Williams.

The schoolchildren also visit the friendly sheep and goats, and the beautiful Angora rabbits, which cages sit on the worm composting bin below them! The Angora rabbits are groomed daily by the clients and the fur is used in weaving. The fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are used to serve a daily cottage lunch, created by the clients, to everyone at the Cedars.

Whelan adds, "Over the years at the Cedars garden, I have observed and heard clients say about the garden such as increased happiness, it's relaxing, interesting, there's always something to do, productive, you can always see something growing and it's a place that they are proud of being a part of. "

You can be a part of it too! If you'd like to have your bedroom visit The Cedars, or become a volunteer, contact the main office at 454-5310. Come on down to the Cedarstest in San Anselmo, at 603 San Anselmo Avenue to shop! There are gorgeous crafts (rugs, blankets, belts, napkins) the gifted weavers at the Cedars have created.


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