The Bullington Gardens in Hendersonville, North Carolina, is a 12-acre haven where visitors follow a nature trail through beautiful gardens and where schoolchildren come to learn about plants. About 10 years ago, John Murphy, the director of the Gardens, started a horticultural therapy program. John, who formerly worked in developing countries, had always felt a strong interest in bringing people and plants together. He later attended the Horticultural Therapy Institute classes.
BOOST, which stands for Bullington Onsite Occupational Student Training, is a program for students with developmental disabilities attending four local high schools. For several hours a week, they work in the greenhouses and around the grounds. “The goal is for them to acquire skills they will be able to use in a work environment: staying focused, working together, trying their best while caring for the plants,” John explains. “They have often had a hard time in school and in life. These students do not learn by sitting down and listening. They need to be doing something.”
A special honor for BOOST participants every year is taking part in a regional Chrysanthemum show. In the last edition, five boys and one girl entered the show. Another popular project is a gardening competition between the four high schools that are part of BOOST. “They get a budget of 40 dollars and they must design a 4 feet by 12 feet bed starting with seeds they grow in the greenhouse. I explain landscaping concepts and they do sketches. In June, they are judged on the ornamental quality of their garden,” John says. “They are a bit shy at first, but they turn out to be very creative. Last year, the winning project was an edible garden with purple basil, eggplants and sunflowers.”
John also works with another group of high-school students whose physical and developmental handicaps are more important. Among the 30 students attending the program each week, several are in wheelchairs while others are blind or deaf. Activities are meant to encourage communication, motor skills and decision-making. “They love to come here. When they get out of the classroom into this beautiful environment, they come to life and can communicate more easily. Often, their teachers are blown away. It is difficult to measure self-confidence. But you can see a change in them when they are out in the garden.”
For the last 6 years, John has been working on his pet project, a Therapy Garden. As the only paid staff member at the Bullington Gardens, he gets help from volunteers, many of them retired. His original goal was to design the Therapy Garden for older people with physical limitations. He is working on a greenhouse with a wheelchair accessible classroom. The project is slowly maturing depending on how much time John can devote to it.
John wishes that acceptance of horticultural therapy could grow faster. He finds that many hospitals, for example, are still unaware of the benefits of horticultural therapy. “I am struck by the differences. In Portland, Oregon, they are very active and their hospitals have several gardens for various types of patients. But here in Ashville, which is a rather progressive city, there is nothing at the local hospital. This is an old discipline; psychiatric patients have worked in gardens for many years. So why is it taking so long to get accepted?”