Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens Celebrates One-year Anniversary

At an event commemorating the first anniversary of the Greenhouse at Wilmot Garden on March 18, Dr. Craig Tisher took the podium next to a table of certificates for greenhouse volunteers and reflected on the therapeutic horticulture program’s four-year history.

The Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens seemed a distant reality in 2011 when Tisher, former dean of the College of Medicine, put together a planning committee for the creation of a therapeutic horticulture program.  With the help of Linda Luecking, project coordinator, and Leah Diehl, program director, the team set up its first program in a cramped, borrowed greenhouse space behind Fifield Hall in the spring of 2012. The theory was that gardening had a therapeutic value that could be quantifiably demonstrated through an improved quality of life among participants.

“We started working with veterans who were already participating in an Arts in Medicine program at the Wilmot Gardens,” said Tisher.  “They loved it, and because of that experience, we decided we needed to expand the program.”

Following the success of the first session, the planning committee received a major gift that would allow it to tackle the long overgrown southwest portion of Wilmot Gardens. In March 2014, a greenhouse fully compliant with the American with Disabilities Act opened its doors.

Now celebrating its first year, the greenhouse has served as a research and treatment center for various groups with problems such as spinal cord injuries, chronic kidney disease,  and breast cancer. During the 16-week sessions, participants interact with each other while potting plants, clipping leaves and sharing experiences.

“I think it’s about bringing people together with common problems,” said Tisher.  “It takes the nurses and the doctors out of the equation, and it brings someone else in, like a therapeutic horticulturist, who provides new ideas and a social surrounding.”

A new surrounding can be a fresh change for many of the participants, echoed Diehl. Some have had to stop working because of their diseases or ailments, and that often results in them thinking they are no longer able to contribute to society.

“We’re trying to help them feel that self-worth again, and I think growing plants is a really wonderful way to do that,” she said.

This impact would not be possible without the dedication of the 40 master gardeners and other volunteers who were recognized for their time and commitment to the therapeutic horticulture program at the event in March. While Diehl manages the greenhouse’s maintenance and operations, she said she completely relies on the master gardeners and volunteers to deliver programming, encourage socialization, and create a positive environment.

Karen Markey, one of the volunteers who dedicates her time as a master gardener, was able to see the greenhouse construction from start to finish. She said she has seen the joy it brings the program’s participants and considers it one of her favorite projects.

“The participants in the particular group I worked with were able to bring their caretakers or wives with them,” said Markey. “We would kind of chit chat, and the wives would say what a difference the program was making in their husbands. It’s just so calming when you come in here.”

Moving forward, the program’s researchers aim to quantify these qualitative sentiments so that insurance companies will accept therapeutic horticulture as a treatment worth covering.

“I think anybody who works in the program knows intuitively, anecdotally, that we’re making a huge difference for people. We can see that,” said Diehl. “We want to be able to put the numbers to it and show the health insurance companies that this is actually a worthwhile intervention.”

That goal may soon be a reality as the greenhouse continues to attract attention. An increasing number of departments from across UF are joining research projects conducted at the facility, and Christy Penman, a greenhouse volunteer and student pursuing a master’s degree in the environmental horticulture department, said she’s excited about the future success of the program and the collaborations it has been generating.

“Through the research, we have collaborators from health outcomes and policy, neuroscience, psychiatry and environmental horticulture,” Penman said.  “All these different departments are now being linked through this program, which is an awesome way to start interdisciplinary discussion and research.”

Though the program has gained substantial momentum since its move to Wilmot Gardens, stabilization of support for the programs remains a key issue. Tisher says funding is largely hand-to-mouth, relying on private donations and small grants. To sustain the program over long periods of time, however, it needs a steady cash flow.

“A lot of our goals have been reached, so we just keep pushing the goals out a little further,” said Tisher. “I think if we can demonstrate with our outcomes that we really are improving quality of life and coping skills, people will pick this program up and use it other places. … We’d like to export this model all around the Southeast.”