This is a first. Today, we are going to visit a French horticultural therapy program, an award-winning garden for people who have suffered brain injuries and strokes. About five years ago, a new residence for patients with brain damage opened near Paris in the small town of Maule. The residence, called La Maison des Aulnes, is home to about 45 men and women for long-term stays. Bruno, one of the residents, was a gardening guerilla, sneaking in plants in the surrounding grounds. With the help of Stéphane Lanel who is in charge of activities for the residents, his dream of starting a garden on the premises became true. It turns out that Anne Ribes, a French pioneer in horticultural therapy, is a local. Anne is a nurse with training in horticulture and started experimenting with gardening with patients back in 1995. One of her most successful programs is offered at the Parisian hospital of Pitié-Salpêtrière and welcomes autistic children. Anne and her husband Jean-Paul became involved in the project, which the residents named the “jardin d’Epi Cure”, a play on word mixing references to Epicurus, shots and getting cured.
In the place of a large and rather bland lawn, now stands a beautiful garden. One enters through a lovely arch and follows a meandering path towards a series of willow planter boxes built at the perfect height for wheelchair gardeners, a covered pergola where herbal tea and homemade jams are served after each work session and a recent fruit orchard. A greenhouse, a composting area and a natural flower meadow complete the garden that provide a beautiful view from some of the bedrooms. Residents were involved in every step of the process: designing the garden, choosing the plants, building the planter boxes and taking care of the garden during weekly sessions. It is only natural that Bruno and Elizabeth, another resident who has become a huge fan of the garden, would be present to receive a recent award given out by the Truffaut Foundation (Truffaut is a nearly 200-year old nursery chain in France and recently decided to start a foundation to encourage therapeutic and other socially-minded gardening projects through financial help, mentoring from local stores and now this award).
Outside of the weekly gardening sessions led by Stéphane and Anne, the residents have made the garden their own. They will often drop by to weed, water or just sit under the pergola. Here is what they have to say about their place. “The garden is a breath of fresh air and we always learn something,” says Dominique. “I am pro-gardening. We have done good work here,” states Elizabeth. There is a path bordering the garden and “we used to look at people walking there with envy”, says Bruno. “Now they look at us with envy.” Everybody is proud to show off the garden to visitors, including Rebecca Haller who got to visit during a visit to France last fall. You too can visit this wonderful gardening as Stéphane keeps a journal on Facebook, full of comments and pictures. As a matter of fact, Stéphane is now studying for a degree in horticulture in order to pursue his interest in horticultural therapy.