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Buehler Enabling Garden

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

The Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden is accessible for people of all ages and abilities.

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

A tour of the Buehler Enabling Garden with volunteer Peter Dogiakos.

A green thumbs-up for horticultural therapy

by Kelly C. Doherty
May 19, 2010

Adventist Hinsdale Hospital garden

The Hinsdale Assembly Wellness Garden at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital.

Shriners Hospitals for Children garden

Courtesy of Shriners Hospitals for Children

Birdhouses painted by children hang in the wellness garden at the location of Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago.

The sign at the entrance of the Buehler Enabling Garden reads “Gardening for people of all abilities.” 

All of the brick pathways are at least 5 feet wide between raised flower beds, which have ledges for sitting.  Hanging baskets are attached to pulley systems so they can be raised and lowered, and pan beds of different heights offer easy access for a seat or wheelchair.  

“This garden is a barrier-free garden.  No matter what your ability, you are able to garden here,” explained Alicia Green, who works in the horticultural therapy program in the Enabling Garden, a part of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

Therapy can consist of activities such as creating or maintaining a garden, arranging flowers, harvesting herbs and vegetables to make salsa, or pressing dry flowers, said Kelley Coakley, a horticultural therapist at the Garden.  These activities and others can help improve fine motor skills, encourage social interaction, decrease stress and anxiety, and increase cognitive skills, she said.    

Each of the plants in the garden has a sensory purpose, added Green, whether they provide color, texture or a fragrance.  And as a safety precaution, “everything in this garden is non-toxic,” she said. 

The Enabling Garden hosts classes and programs in its outdoor classroom for groups of up to 15 participants plus staff required for the group’s needs. They work with a variety of ages and abilities, including physically disabled children, developmentally disabled adults and nursing home residents.  

Enabling Garden volunteer Peter Dogiakos, 56, is an example of someone who has found success with horticultural therapy.  After having a stroke 16 years ago, he heard about the Enabling Garden and its programs from Gene Rothert, manager of the Enabling Garden and horticultural therapy services.  

He said it helped him take his mind off the effects of his stroke and gave him an activity he could do again.  “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can do this.’  And here I am.” 

Dogiakos has been volunteering at the garden ever since and said the real reward is witnessing the reactions of the visitors and program participants.  “Just to see them smile, just to see them laugh … it’s something to see,” he said. 

The use of horticulture as a therapeutic activity has been around for hundreds of years and has become a more recognized form of therapy over the past 30 years, Coakley said 

Gardening is a “non-threatening medium for therapy,” she said, and provides an array of activities for people of different needs and abilities – physical, mental, social and emotional.  

The 11,000-square-foot Buehler Enabling Garden opened in 1999, following the original enabling garden which opened in 1977.  It is staffed by horticultural therapists and about 40 volunteers. In addition to programs onsite, the Garden extends its services to outside facilities like hospitals and nursing homes by consulting on garden design and teaching horticultural therapy programs to the staff.  

The patient garden at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago provides ways that “our children can get out there and feel independent,” said Darlene Kelly, director of recreation therapy and child life.    

“Part of the gardening process is taking care of something else.  All their lives they are being taken care of and everyone is doting on them and it’s kind of nice that a lot of our kids were able to get out to the garden and plant things and make birdhouses and feel like part of the garden,” she said.  

Spending time in the garden helps decrease anxiety during the kids’ hospital experiences said Kelly, and they enjoy activities like doing crafts with flowers and having a tea party with herbs harvested for mint tea and herbal vegetable dip. 

Susan King, executive director of the Hinsdale Hospital Foundation at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, another client, said rehab nurses had suggested the creation of a garden to use as a setting for physical therapy patients.    

The garden there, which opened in 2009, was designed to be accessible for all so that patients can enjoy the pleasant setting during therapy and get out of their rooms, but it is also used by visitors, and has a memorial garden for families who have lost a newborn.

“It is heavily used by everybody in the hospital,” she said.    

Whether someone is suffering from a stroke, severe depression, or is just stressed out, “everybody gets a chance to benefit [from horticultural therapy],” said Coakley. 

The Buehler Enabling Garden was an early leader in horticultural therapy and has become renowned for its design and programs, according to its manager, Gene Rothert, who has been there more than 25 years.  Last year the Garden’s programs served more than 10,000 people.