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Planting the Seeds of Healing
How horticultural therapy is used locally to treat behavioral health issues


Oct. 2017

Ever take a walk in a park or sit beside a fragrant garden to de-stress? People often find peace in nature. Rogers Behavioral Health System has taken the idea a step further by developing a new therapeutic program: horticultural therapy. According to the American Horticulture Therapy Association, horticulture therapy is an active process that occurs in the context of an established treatment plan.

“The gardens are lovely, but there is much more to them,” says Jonathan Irish, horticulture therapist for Rogers’ Oconomowoc facility. He is part of a team of doctors, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and others who invite patients to garden as part of their healing process.

Even simply experiencing a garden can be therapeutic. Of the grounds at the Oconomowoc facility, Irish says: “There is a labyrinth for introspection and meditation, a gazebo for resting, (and) walking paths for exploration.” Other features include a nature-based play area with balancing elements and a playhouse, bird and butterfly sanctuary, patio and outdoor work area, and water feature along with raised planter beds, which will be accessible to those with physical disabilities.

Feedback on the therapeutic gardens has been good, Irish says, which has inspired them to do more. Therapeutic gardens are being installed at other Rogers Behavioral Health System locations. “The most recent addition is an edible garden in Delafield designed to facilitate interaction with eating disorder patients. Dietitians worked with landscape architects to design this space,” Irish explains. “Our goal is to challenge the relationship with food.”

Additionally, a playground garden is in development at the Brown Deer outpatient campus, where there once was a parking lot. And, while there is limited space at the West Allis facility, patients are working on growing new plants. Rogers also has program-specific therapeutic gardens at its child and adolescent centers.

“Uses for the green space go across different programs (and) all ages and diagnoses at Rogers,” Irish explains. Wisconsin winters are not particularly friendly to therapeutic gardens, but in 2016, the Oconomowoc location completed the construction of a state-of-the-art greenhouse, allowing patients and staff to grow plants year-round and work on horticultural projects.

“We encourage people to use the gardens, but we don’t force them,” Irish says. “We are hoping that most of our patients will get the benefits of the gardens.”


This story ran in the Oct. 2017 issue of: