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Programs See Horticulture as a Way to Plant Seeds of Hope in Troubled Youths' Lives

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page F21

Imagine that you have 22 acres of rural property, decorated only by grass, trees and a few shrubs, and punctuated by a scattering of buildings. It was once a U.S. military facility, and now it's home to several dozen young men who are getting a chance to change the direction of their lives.

In landscape terms, the former Brandywine Nike Missile Battery in Prince George's County is a wasteland. It's the dream of the board and staff at the Maryland Center for Youth and Family Development, spearheaded by Bonnie Peet, director of nursing, to convert this cheerless domain into an attractive campus that residents would be proud of.

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There's one little problem in turning this vision into reality. The facility doesn't have any money to spend on the grounds.

The privately owned, nonprofit center is a residential care facility for young men who have had serious social and psychological problems. The center, which has a staff of about 100, provides counseling, treatment and schooling for up to 55 youths. There are two main buildings, one for clinical services, one for administration, plus four cottages that house the residents. A school occupies another site nearby.

"It's a gorgeous, pristine rural area," Peet said. It needs an overall landscape plan, with plantings on the grounds and around the cottages, perhaps a vegetable garden, maybe even a meditation garden for quiet times. The center's staff would like to develop a volunteer program to install and care for the landscaping, while including opportunities for the children at the facility to help.

Some assistance has already been recruited -- the promise of five yards of mulch and compost from the Prince George's County environmental department -- but this is barely a start. The site needs a landscape designer who can donate time and services to come up with a master plan for the grounds. The center needs people to help recruit and coordinate volunteers.

Peet and others at the center are convinced that there's a connection between the physical landscape and people's well-being and self-esteem. This is increasingly being recognized as valid and important in the psychological and horticulture communities.

Horticulture therapy, as defined by the American Horticulture Therapy Association, is "a process in which plants and gardening activities are used to improve the body, mind and spirits of people." The association maintains that horticulture therapy can help people "learn new skills and regain those lost," including improving memory, promoting task initiation and fostering attention to detail. Such therapy can improve balance, strength and coordination. It helps people learn how to work independently, solve problems and follow directions. In addition, according to the association, during horticulture therapy, "social growth occurs -- people caring for plants learn responsibility and experience hopeful and nurturing feelings."

When I was studying horticulture at the University of Maryland, I wrote a paper on the effects of gardening for healthy people, and the benefits in health and well-being were clear. I also ran across the work of Diane Relf, who is now professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and works in the field of horticulture therapy.

Relf says her research indicates that people recognize some innate idea of "nature," even if they have not thought much about it, and that just looking at natural scenes, even through a window, tends to lower blood pressure, lessen stress and even reduce anger. Gardening, however mild the involvement, can have even greater effects on a person's mental and physical health, she says.

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