Atlanta, GA,
10:10 AM

Hope Grows with Horticulture Therapy

Horticulture therapy program provides an opportunity for both first-time and experienced gardeners to help Shepherd Center’s garden flourish.

To an outsider, it might look like Shepherd Center patients who take part in the horticulture therapy program are simply digging in the dirt. But, there’s more to it than that. Every task they complete – from indoor planting to outdoor gardening to garden related crafts such as floral arranging – is a carefully orchestrated part of their therapy, designed to improve cognition, strengthen muscles, increase mobility and give patients a sense of purpose.

When asked about the benefits of this type of therapy, Shepherd Center horticulture specialist Wendy Battaglia recalls one patient she interacted with who was recovering from a stroke. He attended one of her group sessions and seemed mildly interested. After a conversation with the recreation therapist, they decided to schedule him for several horticulture therapy sessions, watering in Shepherd Center’s green house. The simple activity of watering plants completely transformed his attitude.

“He told me he’d been at Shepherd for couple of months, and he had become very depressed,” she recalls. “He said watering the plants was the first time he had felt useful since having his stroke, and he realized it was something he would be able to continue to do when he went home. He was excited that he could help his wife with the garden, and he felt like he still had value.”

To Battaglia, moments like this define the horticulture therapy program, which is part of Shepherd Center’s vast recreation therapy program.

“Gardening is meaningful and purposeful,” she says. “Not only do you get a sense of accomplishment, but a sense of purpose, as well. When you are dependent on others for care, it can be rewarding to care for something else.”

Battaglia works with all patients in the spinal cord and acquired brain injury programs, as well as with clients in the SHARE Military Initiative. She leads two group sessions per week and also works individually with patients, demonstrating everything from the basics of gardening to how to perform gardening tasks with adaptive equipment.

“We explore every possibility,” Battaglia says. “Whether it’s edible gardening, flower or container gardening, we figure out how they can do it. If they can’t go back to tending a large garden, we talk about container plants or a patio garden. We figure out the best style for their situation.”

Clients hone their skills in the “Therapy Garden” located within the Anna and Hays Mershon Secret Garden, a dedicated outside space where they can plant, dig, water and tend to the garden. Gardening helps facilitate therapy goals, such as fine and gross motor skills, core strength, range of motion, as well as cognitive goals such as sequencing, problem solving and memory.

“Working in the therapy garden helps them break their larger goals in smaller increments,” Battaglia says. “Plus, gardening helps take their minds off their injury. They aren’t thinking about the past or the future. They are just in the moment and in a safe space where much physical and spiritual healing take place.”

Battaglia also takes clients on outings to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and facilitates bird watching retreats in the spring and fall for former patients and their caregivers. She hosts a “Garden Club” each month, which is sponsored by community partners and incudes education and a “make and take.”

When patients leave, they have information on everything they need to continue gardening when they get home. The resources provide links to adaptive and universal design equipment that they can purchase, information on local community gardens and how-to instructions.

“Whether they are returning to something they love, or picking up gardening for the first time, they are leave here with the skills to make gardening a meaningful experience that they continue long after they’ve returned home,” Battaglia says.

By Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.