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.
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.
There's plenty of social, cultural and historic evidence of the psychological, even spiritual, value of horticulture. Plants have always been important in the realm of human evolution. Domesticating plants and animals created huge changes in human culture. Cultivating plants brought intellectual, psychological and social rewards that have been and continue to be reflected in art, literature and folklore, says Relf. Gardens have served as "havens for reflection" for poets, artists, teachers and philosophers.
Relf also notes that the practice of horticulture in a community setting, which could be a neighborhood, an office complex, a housing project or a school, and would certainly include the Maryland Center for Youth and Family Development, helps improve the health of the group. It establishes a physical appearance that makes people proud to belong, it fosters cooperation and shared values that enhance an individual's sense of control and responsibility for change, and it simply makes a place where it's more pleasant to live.
There are many horticulture therapy programs across the country, often at botanic gardens and arboretums. A lot of them assist people with physical impairments, such as children with developmental difficulties or seniors with diminished motor skills, and there are some that work with at-risk youth.
One of those programs is at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk. It's called HELP, for Horticulture Enrichment Learning Program, an intensive, non-residential program for children who have had problems in school or brushes with the law. Participants are referred by probation officers or by the court system.
The program, said Ann Parsons, the garden's director of education, is for "kids who could go either way, and who need some guidance to get back on track." Besides getting hands-on work in the botanic garden, at tasks such as pruning roses, the young people spend time in the classroom, learning tree identification and basic plant biology. They also get a garden plot of their own.
The program began in 1997 with the modest goals of providing an outlet for children who may never have lived anywhere with a lawn and of getting some help in the botanic garden. But, Parsons said, the staff quickly realized that to be successful, the program would have to concentrate on the needs of the youth and not on the needs of the garden.
"The goal of the program is not so much to have them work in the garden, but horticulture therapy," Parsons said. There's a GED teacher to help adolescents get high school diplomas, and there are sessions on such topics as teen pregnancy, grief counseling, resume writing and interview techniques.
Promising students can go on to the botanic garden's Arborist Training Program, a 15-week paid internship that provides the skills needed to work in the arbor industry. So far, four students have completed the training program and one has been hired by the Norfolk Botanic Garden.
As Parsons notes, the program participants are "a very challenging group." One problem is that the program is not residential, so the children often go home to face the unhealthy and unhelpful situations that had them struggling in the first place. Despite that, she said, "We've seen some real change and success. We have seen kids turn their lives around."
By contrast, the Maryland Center for Youth and Family Development is a residential program. For young people, however, whether they live at a facility or go home every evening, seeing and tending the natural environment can have a powerful effect on their lives.
The board and staff of the Maryland center, led by Peet, hope to enlist the environment in their collection of tools to help the boys at their facility feel better about themselves and the world where they live. To do this, they need a little help from their horticulture friends. Call the center at 301-888-2695 to see what you can do.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.