A special note of thanks: Many thanks to regular contributor Isabelle Boucq for her wonderful and informative contributions to the Horticultural Therapy Institute blog over the last three years! Isabelle is stepping away from the HTI blog as she focuses her energy on pursuing her master’s degree in clinical psychology in Paris. Though we will miss her writings, especially her international perspective in highlighting HT practitioners and work being done around the world, we wish her the very best.
By Susan Morgan
Photos courtesy of Suzanne Redell, HTR
Long before she became a registered horticultural therapist, Suzanne Redell, HTR, began gardening at her Silicon Valley, California, home in order to manage the stressful demands of her management job at a high tech company with family responsibilities. “I found that gardening unscrambled my head and helped me find the answers to the questions I had,” says Redell. “Though it is not the same as meditation, gardening is a meditative activity, and I could see the tremendous positive effects it had on me.” This was the seed which eventually grew into the inspiring work she currently does at a mental health center in Redwood City and also as a supervisor and mentor for horticultural therapy interns.
A Career Evolving
With an undergraduate degree in organizational behavior and business administration and a master’s degree in counseling, Redell began her career at Apple, where she worked for 11 years. As a senior manager specializing in organizational development and human resources, she implemented the career center at Apple, among other accomplishments. She credits her experience there with honing skills in counseling and assessment, which later would be useful in her work in horticultural therapy (HT).
She eventually left Apple to work at start-up companies until the tragic events on 9/11 led the company she was working for to ultimately close. Acknowledging her passion for being outdoors, she began taking courses in horticulture. After attending a seminar on healing gardens, she was introduced to HT by one of the attendees. Redell and her new friend began carpooling to Merritt College, just outside Berkeley, where she completed her HT certificate and earned an associate’s degree in environmental horticulture and design.
After completing her certificate coursework, Redell and her friend collaborated to develop HT programming at a halfway house for young adults, a senior day center in Mountain View, and Abilities United, an organization that supports individuals with developmental disabilities and their families in Palo Alto. Some of these positions were voluntary, while others were part time paid work one to two times per week.
Current Work at Cordilleras
For the last eight years, Redell has been leading the HT program at Cordilleras Mental Health Rehabilitation Center, which is a 140-bed rehabilitation center and residential facility for adults with chronic mental illness. She started working there in collaboration with a social worker who was interested in developing a nutrition program for clients. The garden was developed as a place where the clients could play an active role in growing and then eating delicious fresh food they grew.
The program started with one raised bed and some in-ground gardening space. “The program has evolved to be a part of the person’s experience while at Cordilleras,” she says. “Clients aren’t forced to participate. They have the ability to choose to participate.” Today, Redell leads one-to-one and group sessions and utilizes seven raised beds, several in-ground beds, and a greenhouse on two acres. Everything planted in the garden is grown from seed. The HT program regularly partners with allied professionals at Cordilleras in counseling, art therapy, movement therapy, mindfulness, and meditation. They have used the garden for vocational rehabilitation to prepare some individuals for employment.
For the last three years, she has been supervising HT interns, primarily students from the Horticultural Therapy Institute. Redell credits her interns in working with clients and staff to develop new garden spaces and procedures that have helped the program continue to evolve. They think creatively and inspire new ideas – an environment that she recalls from her prior experience. “Apple taught me to consider the way you usually do something, then think outside of the box, and come up with a new way to do it. This helps to keep me motivated and challenged. It isn’t repetitious.”
A Meaningful Activity with Clients
A meaningful activity that Redell has employed with clients is a plant-self mood assessment chart. There is a piece of paper with images of plants in various states. Images include a (1) basil plant with shiny, healthy green leaves, (2) sunflower blooming in a field of sunflowers, (3) potted houseplant that is wilted, (4) potted cactus with noticeable thorns, (5) vibrant purple flower with dew drops on it, (6) red anthurium flower with noticeable damage on one side of the flower, (7) fuzzy lamb’s ear plant, and (8) wilted drooping yellow flower. At the top of the page, a question asks “What plant reminds you of yourself?”
Redell finds this self-assessment process refreshing and different from other traditional assessments and easier for clients to relate. In asking a client to relate these plants to the self in order to articulate how they are feeling in the moment, “it doesn’t seem intrusive. It feels safe.” Clients often indicate that they strive to be like the sunflower. Or, a client might identify that they are feeling “bent over just like this plant,” pointing to the wilted flower. And he or she may even be physically hunched over. Redell encourages the client to do some activities in the garden and then revisit how he or she is feeling afterwards. She says that sometimes you can see that the client isn’t bent over anymore and self reports feeling better. Noting how clients have responded positively to this assessment, other therapists on staff have also used it in their work. “It’s amazing how plants touch people and open them up,” says Redell.