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Patients Root their Recovery in Nature

Horticulture therapy plants seeds for healing by engaging patients in gardening activities.

By cultivating plants through Shepherd Center’s horticulture therapy program, patients nurture much more than flowers in the garden. They’re planting a literal and figurative seed that yields lasting rewards, says Wendy Battaglia, horticulture specialist at Shepherd Center.

“Horticulture therapy is a relationship between people and plants,” Battaglia says. “It’s about believing in tomorrow because it isn’t just for the moment. What you do in the garden now is for your and others’ enjoyment later.”

With links to ancient times, when, according to the Horticultural Therapy Institute, royal court physicians prescribed walks in palace gardens to help soothe troubled minds, horticulture therapy has been long valued as a healing force.

Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale recognized the inextricable relationship between health and nature. Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau traced in nature many roots to his own happiness and fulfillment.

Today, researchers explore the quantifiable benefits of horticulture therapy, which Shepherd Center uses as part of its larger recreation therapy program to help patients lead active lifestyles as independently as possible.

While planting and growing a garden helps develop muscles, improve cognition, increase mobility and foster other physical improvements that help grow independence, the psychological victories can be just as important.

“I can see the rewards on people’s faces,” Battaglia says. “They may not verbalize it, but you can see them going out to the garden and maybe not knowing what they will be capable of doing. Then they accomplish something, and that can be a ‘wow’ moment for them.”

It is not just the patients or Shepherd Center staff members who find value in the program. It also is a great “door-opener” for engaging donors and local garden clubs that contribute to the program in numerous ways, says Lauren Tucker, senior major and planned gifts officer in the Shepherd Center Foundation.

“It is a manifestation of one of the co-founder’s desires to make the hospital feel more like home,” says Tucker, referring to Alana Shepherd who, along with her husband Harold and son James, founded the hospital in 1975. The program helps ensure that the grounds are beautifully maintained so patients and their families can enjoy being outside. It’s more like a retreat atmosphere, Tucker says.

“There’s always lots of enthusiasm from local garden clubs,” Tucker says. Again, that stems from Alana’s involvement, particularly through her membership in the Iris Club, which has supported Shepherd Center for decades.

Clubs donate money to help fund the program and engage members as volunteers to help beautify the campus with seasonal decorations, such as Christmas trees and wreaths.

Since Shepherd Center opened, Tucker says nearly 80 garden clubs have invested volunteer hours and funds to purchase plants and tools that patients can use depending upon their injuries and degree of mobility. Program activities are customized for patients. There are in-room planting opportunities for patients who cannot go outside, and for those who can, plenty of other garden activities allow them to play in the dirt again, Tucker says.

“The thing that’s so neat about the program is that it’s in keeping with other Shepherd Center goals of teaching that extra level of independence,” she adds.

Battaglia recalls one patient, a gardener, who wanted to get back in the garden, and she did exactly that by planting basil seeds in the greenhouse. She could hardly lift her arms during her first week in the program, Battaglia says, but only a week later she had much more mobility.  The basil seeds have since thrived in the green house. They have been transplanted and are enjoyed now by others.

“In that second session, she saw that she would be able to continue gardening when she got home,” Battaglia adds. “It created a vision for her that there’s going to be a way through this.” 

For more information on contributing to Shepherd Center’s horticulture therapy program, contact Lauren Tucker at 404-350-3052 or For more information on Shepherd Center’s recreation therapy program, click here.

Written by Shawn Reeves
Photos by Phil Skinner

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.