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Horticultural therapy at Vail’s Alpine Gardens

AE Garden Buddies 2 DT 6-14-07
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VAIL ” The word “paradise” comes to us from Persia and literally means “walled in garden,” referring to the region’s royal parks. Impressed with the lush grounds, a Greek soldier serving in Persia took the word home with him, and “paradise” evolved to express heaven on Earth or Garden of Eden, as we use it today.

The word’s origin reflects the connection between plants and a happy human psyche. Think about stories across cultures, the garden has always been a place one could escape from everyday problems. Like in the British book “The Secret Garden,” the young protagonist Mary Lennox discovers herself and saves her ailing cousin with the help of a magical garden.

This harmonious relationship between plants and humans is ancient, but it wasn’t until recently, around the 19th century, that doctors and psychiatrists realized one could use the bond to improve mental and physical illness. Called Horticulture Therapy, the method uses plants, gardening activities and the natural world to promote wellness in people. Prisoners, war veterans, spinal injury patients, hospice volunteers, cancer survivors and kids have all benefited.



Five years ago, Jackie Clark and Peggy Peters, owners of Ground Works, brought Horticulture Therapy to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. Every Tuesday they host a different group at the garden to dig in the dirt, plant flowers or make tea from fresh picked herbs, among other activities.

“So many times in our lives we go to the car to our garage to a parking lot and we never touch the actual Earth,” Peters said. “This gives all the groups a chance to touch the flowers, touch the dirt, feel the earth.”



“Connecting with nature, being outside, it just opens them up,” Clark added. “It puts people in a more positive place to think about everything. It’s a simple, effective method to improve their self esteem and relieve stress.”

A lot of it is also physical healing, Clark said. They work with spinal injury patients and the act of gardening improves their motor skills.

“It also gets people who wouldn’t normally want to go outside out and exercising,” Clark said. “The plants call them out of their chairs and invite them to be nurturing.”



Last Thursday, the Buddies kids worked with Peters to plant vegetables in the children’s garden at Betty Ford. In the fall they’ll return to harvest the squash, zucchini and peppers and make a special lunch. Buddies is a mentoring program for local kids who need a role model. The organization’s goal, director Narda Reigel said, is to expose the kids to new activities and to the community in which they live, many who have never been in Vail proper.

“Our kids need to discover who they are. They need the opportunity to see beyond their environment,” Reigel said. “They need to know there is more to life than watching TV, and this (planting at Betty Ford) is a task they can accomplish.”

Carlos, 10, who was planting with the Buddies, said even though it’s hot, he really likes gardening.

“What I like is you get your hands dirty,” he said. “When you plant you get to know all the names of the plants. But I really like to eat them because I am always hungry.”

But Carlos doesn’t want to become a gardener when he grows up, he wants to play soccer.

Marika, 13, playing with a rolley poley bug she found in the dirt, explains how she wants to become a veterinarian.

“I have a kitten at home,” she said. “Her name is Kitty.”

For these kids, and a lot of the groups who work with Ground Works, Horticulture Therapy is about much more than the connection with nature. Once their hands are busy, they begin to talk about what they do, about their friends and family and about their dreams. They forget about any troubles and enjoy the task at hand.

“I use it on my own kids when they’re in a difficult mood,” Peters said. “I send them out to plant or pick lettuce for their dinner salads, and the mood just melts away.”

Eagle resident Debbie Monica said, for her, the Horticulture Therapy activities are more emotional and less about planting in the garden. A cancer survivor, Monica went with her kids to several sessions, ranging from digging in the dirt to making mint tea from garden ingredients.

“It was therapeutic to be around other cancer people that were survivors and have my kids see that other people were survivors,” she said. “It was about spending quality time with my kids.”

Emotional cleansing is one effect of Horticulture Therapy, and when dialogue opens up between participants, healing starts to happen, Peters said.

“That’s how we know Horticulture Therapy works,” she said.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 748-2938, or cpence@vaildaily.com.


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