As a landscape architect, Martine Brulé could not help noticing that the hospitals and retirement homes she was visiting were sorely lacking in landscaping and green spaces. This was in the early 2000s and she was convinced that the patients and residents were suffering from these uninspiring environments. When Brulé decided to broach the subject with hospital and home administrators, several obstacles were brought up. “There were financial and space constraints of course. Few retirement homes have enough space, » she explained to me on the phone before we got to meet at a horticultural therapy conference in Paris. “But there was also a ‘philosophical’ barrier. Ten years ago, it was not fashionable to question oneself on the topic of well being.”
In 2003, she started an association, Phyll’Harmonie, to promote gardens as tools for therapy with Marcel Rufo, a well-known French child pyschiatrist, as chair. She still works for “la Maison des Ados” in Nice, a place that takes in teenagers with severe psychological troubles, where she created a garden. When space became an issue there, she started thinking about solutions that would let people work with living matter despite the lack of space. Brulé, who is a member of AHTA, came up with her “garden on a tray” (“jardin sur un plateau“). “A craftsman builds them for me out of resin though I would like to move to a more natural material. The tray is easy to transport and allows people to work indoors or outdoors. It is a way to create a miniature landscape and allow the patient to use their creativity. The tray is durable and can evolve with the seasons,” explained Brulé. For older people who might not be able to work outside with tools, she prefers this solution, which allows them to garden in a seated position.
For two years, she worked in a Paris hospital in a geriatric unit for people with Alzheimer’s (Bretonneau Hospital). Back in the south of France, she has been working in a retirement home in Fréjus since 2007 and believes that her workshops have cognitive, psychological, physical and social benefits for the patients. “I can see that people are more and more dependent,” she said, adding that they require adapted activities to provide them with sensory stimulation. “The difference between gardening and other non-medication approaches is that there is a reaction to the living matter. You can see it immediately and this reaction increases well being,” said Brulé.
She has not failed to notice the recent craze for « therapeutic gardens » though she thinks that the therapeutic claims can be exaggerated. For her, a program has to be integrated in the overall project of the home and serve clear objectives. She believes that France with its mistrust of teamwork is at a disadvantage. “Horticultural therapy is only one link in a chain, it takes teamwork with the other specialists.”
Today, Brulé works both as a therapist and as a trainer. She leads workshops for older patients, handicaped people, children and teenagers through her company Viv’Harmonie. She recently teamed up with France Pringuey, a medical doctor with a strong interest in healing gardens who has acquired skills in landscaping to complement her medical training and collaborate in the design of therapeutic gardens in medical facilities. Viv’Harmonie also provides training sessions in collaboration with the national association of occupational therapists. Brulé feels that there is a strong demand from nursing staffs, particularly in retirement homes. Training, she feels, is the most pressing project for horticultural therapy in France.