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UT Gardens expands its work in therapeutic gardening and shares with healthcare organizations

By Susan Alexander, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:41 PM

KNOXVILLE (MCT) – “Working in the garden gives me a profound feeling of inner peace.” – Ruth Stout

Rare is the gardener who doesn’t feel better after digging in the dirt.

The University of Tennessee Gardens is sharing that therapeutic quality by inviting people with physical or mental disabilities to enjoy the benefits of time spent there. Derrick R. Stowell, the HGTV-UT Gardens educator, regularly works with groups ranging from Breakthrough’s adults with autism to Sertoma Center’s clients with intellectual disabilities to Clarity Point’s Alzheimer’s patients. Some groups come weekly; others once a month.

Stowell developed a therapeutic gardening program last year and has been reaching out to populations that might not otherwise use the Gardens, located just off Neyland Drive.

Some groups get the benefits of sights, sounds and smells that come with a simple garden tour.

Others, like Breakthrough’s adults, work on vocational skills and motor skills while watering and weeding garden beds.

“The people with Alzheimer’s are fun to work with,” Stowell says. “A lot of them were very involved in gardening earlier in life. So we do a lot of sensory and reminiscing activities. We may rub the leaves of scented geraniums or herbs and then talk about their experiences in the past. At Christmas we talked about decorations and what they were like when they were younger.”

The benefits to gardening have been clear for years, Stowell said. Studies have long proven that time working in the garden lowers blood pressure and reduces stress, as well as increases physical fitness. And its positive effects on people with mental illness were documented in the 1800s by Dr. Benjamin Rush, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association. In the 1940s and ’50s, horticultural therapy was used with hospitalized WWII veterans dealing with a wide range of diagnoses.

More recently, there’s been an upswing of interest in therapeutic gardens, designed to be accessible and to encourage interaction with the healing aspects of nature. UT Gardens is evolving into a more accessible facility with gently sloped, packed-gravel pathways, raised beds and sensory-oriented plant selection. The fenced-in purple kitchen garden is the site of many of the therapeutic programs since many of the beds can be accessed by people in wheelchairs. Stowell hopes to develop a new garden area that would be even more accessible. Further down the road, he’d like to do some research at UT Gardens in the field of therapeutic gardening.

In addition to bringing people to UT Gardens, Stowell works with other organizations to design gardens for people with mobility issues or other disabilities. Later this month, he will share information with health professionals who attend the UT Gardens’ first Horticultural Therapy Symposium. The symposium will provide an introduction to horticultural therapy and offer ideas of how to begin to implement horticultural programs at facilities around the area.

Stowell is sure the time in the gardens is valuable and anticipated by the people he works with.

“I have caregivers tell me all the time if it rains or the group misses a scheduled day here, that they hear about it. Participants love spending time in the garden and learning about horticulture.”

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