Horticulture therapy program offers health benefits to disabled

Parker Robb | Collegian Two patients from the Big Lakes Development Center transplant different varieties of tomato plants Friday in the Throckmorton greenhouses. Studies have shown that plants have a beneficial effect on a person’s general well-being and reduce stress.

When walking around campus, students may be aware of the beauty of blooming floral beds and neatly trimmed shrubbery, but what they might not be aware of is that plant life has an effect on their own physical health and the health of others. That message is not lost on the horticultural therapy program students and faculty at K-State who study the effect.

“Horticulture therapy is using plants, nature and gardening to work with patients that have disabilities or in treatment,” said Candice Shoemaker, program director of the department of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources for the K-State Division of Continuing Education. “It’s like music therapy, or art therapy or physical therapy.”

The program started in 1971 when the Menninger clinic in Topeka asked the university to create a program that would help patients with mental disabilities, said Richard Mattson, profesor in horticulture. The Topeka Menninger clinic, founded in 1925, is a world-renowned mental hospital, and at the time offered internships for K-State students. Since 1971, the Menninger clinic has moved from Topeka. It is now stationed in Houston, Texas.

Although the clinic moved, the study program remained at K-State. Eventually, the undergraduate program was phased out in favor of an online master’s degree program in 1979. A doctoral program was added in 1981.

“We’re the only university to offer a master’s degree in horticulture therapy,” Mattson said.

The switch to an online program came after careful investigation into the current program enrollment,” Shoemaker said.

“We looked at who was our prospective student,” Shoemaker said. “The majority of people who were enrolling were non-traditional students, people who were career changers and were middle-aged. They weren’t going to move to K-State to get a degree and we saw a need for an online graduate program.”

Currently, Shoemaker and Mattson are the only faculty members for the graduate program. Around 21 students have graduated from the program, and it currently enrolls four students.

The low number of current students does not accurately reflect the number of interested students, Shoemaker said.

“More students apply than what I can take,” Shoemaker said. “I have to take only 20 to 30 percent of the students that apply, which is hard because so many want to come here and study it.”

Shoemaker said that enrollment was good despite only having four students and that the students gain valuable hands-on experience.

“These opportunities came around rarely,” Mattson said. “You don’t get the hands-on experience in other classes.”

Currently, Big Lakes Developmental Center, a program that assists developmentally disabled Manhattan residents, is involved with the horticulture therapy program. Big Lakes Developmental Center has been involved with the program for several years, according to Shawn Funk, community educator for Big Lakes. Twice a week, eight clients work in the K-State greenhouses for several hours.

“Statistics have shown that gardening is beneficial,” Funk said. “Any time that they’re doing something productive is helpful.”

Besides providing therapeutic activities, the program also offers health benefits. Mattson has studied the effects of plants on individuals by measuring heart rate, temperature and brain waves. His studies have shown that being around plants, or the action of gardening, can lower heart rates and body temperatures. It has also been shown that being around plants and/or gardening reduces stress.

Horticulture therapy is not just for the mentally disabled, either. Shoemaker gave the example of a patient who had a stroke and needed to learn how to work his hand again. To regain his mobility, he started picking up pennies and putting them in a jar for a few hours. With horticulture therapy, this patient could pick up seeds and plant them instead.

“It’s the same motion,” Shoemaker said. “But you’ve accomplished something. It’s intrinsic motivation. You got something when you’re finished.”

Besides health benefits, horticulture therapy also brings students closer to those who have mental disabilities.

“For some students, it’s their first time interacting with the disable population,” Shoemaker said. “The clients [are] so welcoming and appreciative of what the students do. It’s just a different environment from the every day.”

Gardening and planting can also affect those without any sort of disabilities. Shoemaker said that being around plants, while in the office or walking around campus, can be beneficial and helps reduce stress.

“Unplug and just look at the trees,” Shoemaker said. “Really pay attention and you’ll probably feel better than what’s playing on your iPod.”