Atlanta, GA,
09:30 AM

Horticultural Specialist Uses her Green Thumb for Good

Wendy Battaglia shares her passion for gardening with Shepherd Center patients.

Whether it’s standing on a spade, pushing a lawnmower or steering a wheelbarrow, photos of Wendy Battaglia as a small child all show her in a special place – the garden.

“Gardening has always been a passion of mine,” she says. “I love being outside and digging in the dirt.”

Not everyone can turn a passion into a career, but that is just what Battaglia has done, becoming a master gardener, working as a landscape designer, and then two years ago, joining Shepherd Center as a horticulture specialist.

Battaglia grew up in Liverpool, England, where, she says, “Everyone has a garden.”

She worked alongside her grandparents and parents as they tended to their gardens.

“My grandfather had a vegetable garden, and my parents had the most beautiful flower gardens,” she says. “I learned so much from them, and it was always a joyful family activity.”

When Battaglia moved to the United States in 1982, she utilized her art and design education from John Moores University working as a fashion buyer. In 2002, she returned to England to care for her terminally ill mother and redesigned her entire garden, realizing that she could combine her love of art and gardening. Upon returning to the United States, she earned her master gardener certification and took a job as a landscape designer.

While volunteering at Skyland Trail, a mental health facility in Atlanta that embraces horticultural therapy as a treatment modality, Battaglia reconnected to the therapeutic benefits of gardening that she had experienced while caring for her mother. This led her to The Horticultural Therapy Institute to gain her certificate in Horticultural Therapy. In 2014, she saw an opening for a horticultural specialist at Shepherd Center and jumped at the chance to take it.

Just as her clients at Shepherd Center find meaning in what they do in therapy, she finds meaning in working with them. Last year, she worked with a client in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative for three months, the first time she had worked with someone in this program for his or her entire treatment.

“He wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to try gardening,” she recalls. “But he was open to it.”

During the course of his horticulture therapy, he worked on many different projects, including designing a stone patio. He measured and drew the dimensions to scale, and the rendering was used to get quotes for the project.

“It was so great to watch him connect more and more with what he was doing and feel a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “He ended up developing a real interest and talent in gardening.”

In May, that SHARE client returned to Shepherd Center with his family and took great pride in showing them the work he had done in the garden and the patio design that had been installed according to his design. His wife made it a point to tell Battaglia how meaningful gardening has been to him and what amazing improvements he had made – both physically and mentally.

To Battaglia, those stories make it all worthwhile.

“To see patients and clients grow and change from week to week is so rewarding,” she says. “Every day is a good day at my job.”

Battaglia is currently creating a memory garden for the Therapy Garden with a theme of “Who do we share the garden with?” In addition to flowers, herbs and vegetables, the garden contains upcycled steel art sculptures of butterflies, ants, praying mantises and other creatures that live in the garden. The sculptures were created and several donated by Kathy Walton, Steel Art. Battaglia, with the input of other therapists, is creating a scavenger hunt where they can work with patients who have been affected cognitively by their injuries work on memory skills.

Though Battaglia is hard pressed to think of her favorite accomplishment because she thinks her clients accomplish so much every day, she is proud of the team effort that makes the gardens grow and thrive.

“As a horticultural therapist, my responsibility is to meet the needs of the patients and clients as well as running several programs each year,” she says. “Part of that is forming meaningful relationships with the patients, therapists, staff, volunteers and community partners. It takes a village to make everything work, and that is reflected in how beautiful the garden looks.”

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.