What if you could replace a disastrous habit with a healthy one that helps you, your community, and the environment?
That’s exactly what New York teens are doing in a remarkable partnership between Phoenix House Academy Westchester, a nonprofit drug treatment program and school, and the Horticultural Society of New York (popularly known as “The Hort”).
These kids, who were recently struggling to overcome dangerous drug addictions, are learning a healthier way of life with the help of their newly minted green thumbs.
I recently spoke with The Hort’s Sara Hobel about the benefits of therapeutic horticulture—gardening, farming, etc.—for people overcoming addiction.
Can you tell me about The Horticultural Society’s outreach programming and how you began partnering with the Phoenix House teens?
Horticultural therapy really works wonders, as we’ve learned with our large and long-standing program on Rikers Island. We heard that the grounds manager at the Phoenix House Academy was interested in starting a farm there, so we got together and built 40 raised beds, put down ground cover, and planted produce such as fruit trees, corn, squash, peas, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries—everything under the sun. The farm has the potential to produce a huge amount of food.
And there’s also a courtyard garden?
Yes. We wanted to make that project an educational team-building activity for the kids as well as a source of pride. It’s focused on native plants and is meant to be low-maintenance.
A cool thing is that in the process we found a thriving population of gray tree frogs breeding inside a broken fountain. So we built a second pond for the frogs to lay their eggs in. They’re so cute, and the kids love them.
What are some of the benefits of horticultural therapy?
Gardening helps people think through and reorganize their reasoning about concepts like care, success, failure and patience. They realize that there are some things you can’t rush, and that sometimes things don’t work out if you try to skip necessary steps.
Gardening teaches care-taking tools that help people move past the dark parts of their histories, such as domestic abuse, substance abuse, prostitution, self-medication, mental illness, social disorders, paranoia, an inability to work with other people—you name it, nature helps.
What challenges do you experience when beginning to work with a group of teens?
It’s a slow start. For this kind of population, where there are many participants from urban areas, there’s a profound lack of attachment to the natural world that can cause issues with anxiety and stress. Nature has innate benefits that most of us take for granted; even people of modest means are able to take a walk in the park. But if your only contact with nature is through TV you might think it’s all dangerous, isolated, or bad. So some of the kids are quite freaked out, initially saying things like, “Ew, dirt! Ahh, a spider!”
At first they think I’m the goddess of nature or something because I’ll bend down and pick up a spider—but pretty soon, they’re doing it, too.
So how do you make your programming accessible to people for whom nature is so unknown?
Well, it helps that we’re hardly Outward Bound; we’re Inward Bound! We’re cultivation, not wilderness exploration. It’s like, “Here’s a seed. Let’s plant it and nurture it and see what it does.” And then the magic happens.
I’ve seen big macho guys, or girls who are so closed off from their feelings because they’ve been abused, absolutely light up once they get in touch with nature.
Do the kids continue to transform as they get the hang of gardening?
Definitely. They learn new ways of expressing themselves and they develop self-esteem, and they form lifelong bonds with each other during this process of cultivation.
It’s the same thing at Rikers. I’ll never forget sitting there in a room with three murderers as they happily learned flower arranging. They’re totally into it; they really want to get in touch with their artistic side.
At the Academy garden I was teaching about honeybees and why they’re more difficult to anger than yellow jackets, because they die when they sting. The kids found this fascinating, and they started asking, “Like, why would the bee let himself get that angry if he knew he could die? He should realize there are consequences.” And I asked them how that might, maybe, apply to their own lives.
I could see them figuring it out. Some really relevant conversations can happen in a garden.
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