Blog Editor’s Note: Sara Hobel is the Executive Director of The Horticultural Society of New York. “The Hort,” as it is known, operates many therapeutic horticultural programs in and around New York City, including a unique farm and garden designed by clients at our Phoenix House Academy Westchester.
Phoenix House: Can you tell us about your outreach programming and how the Hort began partnering with our teen clients?
Sara Hobel: Horticultural therapy really works wonders, as we’ve learned with our large and long-standing program on Rikers Island. We heard that the grounds manager at the Phoenix House Academy was interested in starting a farm there, so we got together and built 40 raised beds, put down groundcover, and planted produce: fruit trees, corn, squash, peas, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries…everything under the sun. The farm has the potential to produce a huge amount of food, and we’d love to get it integrated with a summer cooking program or nutrition program.
SH: That started with Phoenix House Foundation Board member Nancy Hoving’s desire to turn the courtyard into a community-driven garden to honor her husband’s memory. We wanted to make the project an educational team-building activity for the kids as well as a source of pride. The kids themselves designed it with different sections: a pond, a gazebo, blue stone, pathways, a group meeting area with benches, and beautiful perennials. It’s focused on native plants and is meant to be low-maintenance. A cool thing is that in the process we found a thriving population of gray tree frogs breeding inside a broken fountain. So we built a second pond for the frogs to lay their eggs in—they’re so cute, and the kids love them.
PH: What are some of the benefits of horticultural therapy?
SH: Oh, so many. It’s a cognitive behavioral methodology with proven outcomes; there’s been scientific research showing the benefits of nature on mental and physical health. Gardening helps people think through and reorganize their reasoning about concepts like care, success, failure, patience. They realize that there are some things you can’t rush, and that sometimes things don’t work out if you try to skip necessary steps. Gardening teaches caretaking tools that help people move past the dark parts of their histories, such as domestic abuse, substance abuse, prostitution, self-medication, mental illness, social disorders, paranoia, an inability to work with other people—you name it, nature helps.
PH: What challenges do you experience when beginning to work with a group of teens?
SH: It’s a slow start. For this kind of population, where there are many participants from urban areas, there’s a profound lack of attachment to the natural world that can cause issues with anxiety and stress. Nature has innate benefits that most of us take for granted; even people of modest means are able to take a walk in the park. But if your only contact with nature is through TV you might think it’s all dangerous, isolated, or bad. So some of the kids are quite freaked out initially, like, “Ew, dirt! Ahh, a spider!” At first they think I’m the goddess of nature or something because I’ll bend down and pick up a spider—but pretty soon, they’re doing it, too.
SH: Well, it helps that we’re hardly Outward Bound; we’re Inward Bound! We’re cultivation, not wilderness exploration. It’s like, “Here’s a seed. Let’s plant it and nurture it and see what it does.” And then the magic happens. I’ve seen big macho guys, or girls who are so closed off from their feelings because they’ve been abused, absolutely light up once they get in touch with nature.
PH: Do the kids continue to transform as they get the hang of gardening?
SH: Definitely. They learn new ways of expressing themselves and they develop self-esteem. They form lifelong bonds with each other during this process of cultivation. It’s the same thing at Rikers—I’ll never forget sitting there in a room with three murderers as they happily learned flower arranging. They’re totally into it; they really want to get in touch with their artistic side. At the Academy garden I was teaching about honeybees and why they’re more difficult to anger than yellow jackets because they die when they sting. The kids found this fascinating, and they started asking, “Like, why would the bee let himself get that angry if he knew he could die? He should realize there are consequences.” And I asked them how that might, maybe, apply to their own lives…I could see them figuring it out. Some really relevant conversations can happen in a garden.
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