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May 10, 2014

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Changing the World One Life at a Time

By Travis Slagle, Horticultural Therapy Director

bananatransplantChanging the world is not an easy business, and for mental health providers, changing a life can be just as complicated. Many people enter the field of outdoor therapy because they want to change lives. For students at Pacific Quest, the most basic therapeutic task is to literally practice new ways of caring about life. We are digging, planting, composting, harvesting, and sharing abundance in a rhythmic pattern not just because it’s cool to grow your own food, but also because it fits within a sequential model of neuropsychology. We believe learning to grow food is a relevant and transferable therapeutic activity for a generation of young people that are faced with a daunting need to create a more sustainable future not just for themselves but for their families and communities.

A young person who recently graduated from the adolescent program wrote the following note (below) in a group journal.  This note offers an example of what Horticultural Therapy at Pacific Quest is all about.  It serves as a reminder that while we continue to remain in the business of changing lives, our clients are the ones that might just change the world, and perhaps there is no better outcome than that.


March 28, 2014

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By: Mike Sullivan, Primary Therapist & Lori Armbruster, Communications Director

PQ staff members were honored and humbled by the overwhelming turnout of alumni, students and families who gathered at the San Francisco Children’s Garden in Golden Gate Park for an inspiring day of service to the community! PQ alumni spent the day working side by side with PQ staff to build sustainable garden beds, revamp neglected pathways, and artfully paint various stumps and signs with inspirational quotes and educational facts to support this beautiful landmark garden. Though the theme of the day was service, the undertone was that of connection. The garden is a powerful classroom and catalyst to support change, which has been proven during each student’s stay at Pacific Quest. Families attending the event sought to give to their local community and were also excited to reconnect with the PQ Ohana that helped to create meaningful and life-changing experiences during their Pacific Quest journeys.

Upon arriving at the park, all projects were carefully outlined and explained. Moms, dads, alumni, students, and siblings quickly volunteered for various tasks and out came the gardening gloves, shovels, paintbrushes, and hand picks. The families dove into the tasks, utilizing communication skills, teamwork, and plenty of good humor to complete each task. The families worked throughout the morning, enjoying the camaraderie, sunshine, and people around them. In a pre-lunch debrief circle facilitated by PQ’s Horticultural Therapy Director, Travis Slagle, many commented on how good it was to reconnect with the garden, nature, and community. Young siblings shared the simple happiness they felt being with their families and doing something together. The park interns commented repeatedly that our volunteer alumni were enthusiastic, polite, exceptionally hard working, and clearly dedicated to the tasks at hand.

The Children’s Garden serves as a venue for educating young children in San Francisco about the wonders of the natural world, where their food comes from, and health and nutrition. The garden is maintained by wonderfully enthusiastic interns, who are dedicated to the well-being of youth in their community. The PQ alumni families continuously expressed gratitude that they were able to contribute to such an important and worthy cause. As the day concluded, the Children’s Garden Community Coordinator and her small team of interns expressed sincere heartfelt appreciation, sharing that in one day our “army of angel volunteers” were able to accomplish several projects that would’ve taken their small crew, weeks and — in some cases– months to complete.

As the day came to a close, bittersweet goodbyes ensued. The community gardening project was a huge success! PQ alumni families rekindled a deeper connection with each other and within themselves by working in the garden and giving back to their local community. It is our hope that families will continue to seek out opportunities to practice and put to use many of the concepts learned at Pacific Quest, and that Ohana Days serves to spark that desire.

As I reflect back on this weekend’s event, I am inspired by the ripple effect of the work that we do. Seeing the smiling faces and families working together is a powerful and tangible reminder of that work. It is our goal to foster growth and connection that ripples outward into communities, where families and children will find a deeper sense of connection to themselves and the world.

February 27, 2014

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On the Mainland: Pacific Quest Hosts “Ohana Days” & Alumni Reunion Events

By Lori Armbruster, Communications Director

In the Hawaiian culture, the word “Ohana” means family, which can be blood-related, adoptive or intentional. The concept emphasizes that families are bound together and members must cooperate and remember one another.

When a young person enters Pacific Quest, they become part of a larger Ohana. As they discover the best in themselves, they forge new and meaningful relationships with family members, peers, their community and the natural world. These experiences leave an indelible mark on their lives and in the lives of their families.

Week after week, our staff receives letters from alumni students who reach out simply to say, “thank you” or “you made a difference in my life”. Sometimes these letters come years later as the “seeds” planted have taken time to mature and come to fruition. Some are from students who may have struggled during their stay – but have come to realize the value of their experience. While each alumni letter is unique, all share a common theme.  Alumni students and their families consistently express a desire to reconnect with one another and with the staff members who were instrumental in helping them during this step of their journey.

As our alumni venture into the world, we challenge ourselves to further support the incorporation of healthy skills and community-building concepts gathered while in our care.  Pacific Quest’s mission is rooted in true sustainable growth and it is when our students learn to engage in their communities and be of service to others, that new levels of growth may be realized. To that end, we are very excited to announce several innovative alumni events for 2014.

Pacific Quest’s Ohana Days will provide a series of experiential activities for alumni families to re-imagine the work of “incorporation” and the next step of sustainable growth in their own communities.  These community-building events focus on service, an action-oriented approach to giving back, and leaving a legacy that goes beyond self.  Ohana Days will incorporate a variety of volunteer opportunities, such as building gardens in the heart of a city, harvesting food for local food banks, or building a garden for a local school or charity, and other healthy lifestyle events. Ohana Days will also provide an opportunity for students, families and staff to reconnect and get re-inspired! This experience will broaden the support network for our alumni, encouraging community involvement, and reawakening parents and students to what it really looks like “to be the change you want to see in the world.”

Stay tuned for a formal announcement on our first Ohana Days and Alumni Reunion event, which will be held in the Bay Area, Saturday, March 22! Future dates and locations will be updated periodically on our website and Facebook page. For more information, please contact:

November 30, 2013

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Finding Perseverance, Mystery and Gratitude in Pacific Quest’s Gardens

By Tess Barnes Dunn, Academic Coordinator

IMG_2681Recently, I had an opportunity to spend a day working with my new Pacific Quest colleagues in the area of our garden set aside for our Rites of Passage ceremony, known as Huli Ka’e.

A rite of passage is an important event that serves to mark the passage from one stage of life to another. Rite of passage is an anthropological term for a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person’s change of status on highly important occasions. Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term Rite of Passage in 1908. He examined rites of passage around the world and found that rites of passage involve three important stages:

  • Severance in which an individual sheds his or her old identity
  • Threshold in which an individual has no status – they are both “no longer” and “not yet.”

  • Incorporation in which an individual returns and assumes a new role, typically with great celebration.

Our students experience severance, threshold and incorporation, they also explore perseverance, mystery and gratitude.

Throughout my day, I also explored and experienced my fair share of perseverance, mystery and gratitude.

Our first task was to eradicate the weeds and rocks. Let me rephrase that – our assignment was to eradicate the thousands of weeds and rocks. We worked together. Weeding. Laughing. Talking. Persevering. Together.

As we worked, I witnessed the mystery of the gardens – that transcendent quality that takes our students to the edge, creates change and celebrates rebirth. I listened to the Intent Statements of students, who had just completed the Rites of Passage ceremony. As they assumed their new role, they spoke of power, happiness, hope and dogged determination.

It was a day to remember. It was a day filled with joy, laughter and love and support. I was over-whelmed by gratefulness – gratitude for this garden and everyone in it.

November 21, 2013

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Tree Growth: A Metaphor For Our Lives

By Bridger Jensen, Therapist

Each morning, our newly-arrived Nalu and Kuleana adolescent students and staff travel from our sleeping quarters up the mountainside of the great volcano Mauna Kea. The short trip to our day camp is performed in silence to aid in self-reflection. From these historic, rolling hills through which we travel, sugar cane was once harvested, and constituted the majority of Big Island export. It is here, in the shadow of Mauna Loa, that our students spend their first few weeks. They reflect from a 1,200 foot-high vantage point over crashing waves, as the sun rises over Pacific Quest.  It is spectacular.

The magnificent hillside itself has therapeutic value for us as well. Majestic trees along the route have been sculpted by the near-constant trade winds blowing through them. Consistent winds push each branch and bud as they grow. Each leaf produced must adapt to the windy environment, or be absconded from the tree and carried away by the wind. The tree trunks grow accordingly to support the burdened branches. Thus, the hillside itself has become an excellent source of natural metaphors. Students often mention these windswept trees as a metaphor for their own growth.

As the students and employees learn about and teach horticulture in our gardens, we learn how plants grow intentionally and sustainably. Each seed planted grows to reach sunlight if needed, or even to face away from the sun if it must shade itself. In dry locations, a seedling may grow roots with the purpose of reaching water, while on a riverbank a plant may grow to stabilize itself as the ground beneath it erodes away. In therapeutic settings, students often talk about “Hehu stories.”

These Hehu stories are the stories of what shaped our lives. Like the windswept trees we pass by every morning, we each have stories about what shaped our lives. Were we depraved of nutrition like a seedling that grows in craggy rocks? Were we forced to struggle for each ray of sunlight like a seedling that grows on a dark forest floor? Perhaps our roots and branches languished, due to less-than-optimal resources? Or maybe we can liken ourselves to a healthy tree that has recently been damaged by a traumatic hurricane? Perhaps excessive pruning from our well-meaning caretaker stunted our growth? As we talk about our Hehu stories, students bring up the trees they pass by each morning. Often relating to the wind-sculpted tree that knows only how to grow with the wind.

There are so many variables that sculpt the beings we become, perhaps too many to account for. Some variables appear environmental, some internal. While we can’t completely control the environment that we grow in, we can choose to grow in our environment. Life events are opportunities to grow uniquely, resiliently and with strength. Like trees, we need the right conditions to grow and we will flourish, even amidst adversity, and sometimes because of adversity. Truly, trials beautify and strengthen us when care is given to our growth.

For some fun and interesting trees and Hehu stories, check out the links below:–the-crazy-tree-guy-saves-a-legacy-of-gettysburg

October 2, 2013

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Growing Food In Ka’u

By Yvette Slagle, Outreach Assistant

IMG_2258I stand quietly and look at the garden…the jalapenos and basil, cilantro and parsley, a gourmet salad mix that boasts an array of greens, purples and reds.  There are marigolds, sunflowers, calendula– and of course, nasturtiums.   We decided this time around we should do a succession of Provider Beans, a variety of bush bean that is true to its name!  Spinach, kale, rainbow chard, pumpkins and plenty of tomatoes.  My two year old son smiles with pride as he holds up a bright red beet.  He enjoys helping in the garden–planting seeds, digging in the soil and most of all finding earthworms!  Over the last year, I have truly come to appreciate and greatly cherish my time in the garden with my family.

We live in Waiohinu, in the district of Ka’u on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our home is perched among an orchard of avocados, citrus, coffee and macadamia nuts.  The Pacific Quest adolescent program is about 3 miles away.  At this elevation, approximately 1200 ft, we are able to grow a variety of food.  We enjoy cooler nights, which allows us to grow more Mediterranean plants such as lavender, kale and heirloom tomatoes.  There is a perfect balance of rain and sunshine, along with deep, nutrient rich soil.

Feeling the satisfaction of the daily harvest in the garden, I’m inspired and curious to see who else is growing food in Ka’u.  While searching online, I found specific information pertaining to Ka’u. Michelle Galimba of Kuahiwi Ranch in Naalehu writes, “Ka’u: Rural, Resilient Relevant.  This article provides an overview of life in this remote region of the Big Island and the shift that is taking place in our community after the sugar plantations shut down in 1996.  I also found She Grows Food, a website that provides stories, projects, recipes and even a Hawaii food map.  Founders Lisa Asagi and Dan Nakasone describe their commitment “to developing and supporting solution-based projects that move us toward more resilient and local food systems in Hawaii and everywhere.”  As I watch my two year old son digging in the soil and plucking Sun gold cherry tomatoes from the vine, I realize what it means to be a part of a solution, and that the concept of “nature as healer” can be as simple as creating a garden in your backyard.

July 16, 2013

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Fruits of a Different Color

By Julie Hofferbert, Ka’u Office Manager

jessicabananaI take my break under the mango tree and realize there are little green mangoes above. This starts me thinking about the tangerine tree near my office that provided me with warm juicy snacks throughout the day when I first started working at Pacific Quest. I realize that those treats should be appearing soon! There are a few other things that have excited and amazed me in the last year. Avocados! Living most of my life in Washington State, it was a treat to buy (at a very high price) under ripe avocados, then wait for days to make guacamole. Now, it seems to rain avocados! Big ones, little ones, green ones and purple ones–and they are always amazingly ready to eat. I never imagined just spreading avocado on a piece of toast or adding a couple of slices to a sandwich. Bananas! I’ve actually been able to watch a banana tree flower, fruit and be harvested. Who knew that a rack of bananas started with a beautiful red flower that, to me looks like a heart. Apple bananas, ice cream bananas and Cuban reds, to name a few, this plant is amazing, beautiful and delicious! The bananas in the grocery store in Washington were nothing like I get to enjoy now. I can drink my fruit now! Lemons and limes the size of apples! People give them away, just like we used to give away our “gone wild” zucchinis at the end of the season. Fresh squeezed lemon-aide and lime-aide are on the happy hour list, and something I can feel good about giving my 2 year old grandson. A Ka’u orange is a delicacy, wrinkled and brown on the outside and sweet and juicy on the inside. They say the uglier the better and THEY are right. Apparently these oranges are only found in the district of Ka’u where Pacific Quest is located. The first time I saw them I thought “they must be rotten”. But, they are the best oranges I’ve ever had. Papaya, mango, passion fruit, oranges, limes, lemons, bananas, avocados and dragon fruit too! These are just a few of my favorite things. I do miss crispy apples, juicy peaches, Rainier cherries and picking blackberries in late summer…those are just fruits of a different color!

May 13, 2013

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The Land Dance: Farming as Initiation

By Travis Slagle, Horticultural Therapy Director

The following article was published in ‘Circles on the Mountain’ Rites of Passage in a Rapidly Changing World, Issue #17, 2013.  This is an annual publication of the Wilderness Guides Council.

Imagine what the world would be like if wilderness guides of the future became organic farmers. What if the people entrusted to witness life’s most significant transitions traded in the more esoteric theories of rites-of-passage for a simple shovel and pitch fork?  For many people, the lure of the underworld and the solace of the wilderness is a palpable force.  Yet, despite the best efforts of shamans, mystics, and visionaries of the modern era, the practice of wilderness initiation has become increasingly inaccessible to many of the estimated ten billion people alive today, all of whom face diminishing resources and the intrinsic need to feed themselves and their families.  Here is the crossroads where farming and rites-of-passage meet, raising the question what if rites-of-passage guides were responsible for restoring the nature-centered rituals of planting, harvesting, and cultivating the soil?  Could this be the key to overcome the struggle of integration and the inherent loneliness of a return from a wilderness experience?

As we all know, the purpose of going to the backcountry for ceremony and initiation has never been to stay there.  In fact, going beyond wilderness, the growing edge of rites-of-passage isn’t to delve deeper into social isolation, but instead to relearn the skills and collective wisdom of incorporation.  The future needs “incorporation guides” to lead us from the mountaintops and deserts of the wilderness to the urban gardens, biodynamic farms, and permaculture communities that are thriving in cities, country-sides, and backyards all over the world.  Here, we can really put into practice the work and struggle of incorporation.  Farming is a fundamental skill that allows individuals to provide tangible and universal gifts for a growing population and increasingly diverse society.  Thus, there is no better time to bring back the enduring and once sacred pursuit of nurturing the food that sustains our communities and heals the Earth.

When we do this, the seeds we plant in council will no longer be symbolic.  Rather than sitting and observing nature from a distance, the time has come to lean into the sun each morning with a watering can, to kneel on the earth while pulling out weeds and thinning beets, to feel the life teeming beneath the surface as we sift through the soil to make space for new roots.  The life of a farmer is a reminder of the importance of Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy Programworking with nature as opposed to conquering, traversing, or simply getting through it.  A farmer’s work is a humble and thankless job that gives our society the luxury of idle time.  Yet, with all the comforts of modern society, have we not spent enough time over-processing the anxiety and uncertainty of change in our lives, and still come back to the same questions?  The farmer knows the work that’s needed to integrate the wisdom of nature through consistent and meditative action; leading society on a path of integration that measures the gravity of our ideals with the heroic task of feeding our neighbor.

The process of growing healthy food and building a more sustainable community was once the central activity of human civilization, and the foundation of a reciprocal relationship with nature that has sustained people on Earth for thousands of years.  Nurturing the food we eat offers the most basic life lesson and cornerstone of sustainability, teaching us that what we give directly impacts what we can take.  The wisdom of sustainable farming provides a powerful example of incorporation, revealing the magnitude of one’s intentions through the practical and tangible results of their actions.  With this in mind, it’s time for wilderness guides to begin offering medicine walks in urban gardens, and re-introduce the concepts of severance, threshold, and incorporation through the simple life cycle of a plant.

Going back in time, almost ten thousand years ago, nomadic people decided to put their energy towards cultivating the land versus traversing it, and in the process initiated the dawn of human civilization.  What caused people to make such a dramatic shift in their relationship with the Earth is debatable, but likely attributed to a combination of both internal and external conflicts.  The questions our ancient ancestors asked themselves thousands of years ago could be strikingly similar to the most pressing questions being asked today.  Questions like, how can we spend more time with our family and less time hunting (the modern hunt being for a paycheck)?  Are we tired of wandering around and feel the need for community?  How will we ensure our children will have a better life than our own, and how can we live sustainably with the glaring reality of more people and increasingly scarce resources? These are the questions that have come full circle, leading wilderness guides and agriculturalists to an important moment in human history.  Like all indigenous ways of knowing, the role of the land and a farmer’s relationship to it were inseparable from spiritual practices leading to powerful ceremonies that honored growing seasons and the relationship between plants and the phases of the moon.  Just as the nomad evolved into an agriculturalist, the questions that led to a new era of human experience have now returned to the forefront of modern society.  Thus, wilderness guides and farmers alike must recognize the need to answer these questions in a way that restores balance and integrity between people and their relationship with themselves and the mysteries of the Earth.

The world has always been rapidly changing, like the rise and fall of the ocean, or the shifting of the constellations that only recently became mottled by the automated turn of satellites.  In an information age that has spun out into an era of crippling anxiety and distraction, what matters more than an isolated wilderness experience is an initiatory process with the potential to transform society; an activity that universally connects us to our most primal need and ancient practice of providing not just for Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy Programourselves but for the needs of others.  It’s said that change is the only constant in the world, and life and death walk side by side.  With cities that are now exceeding twenty million people living within a few square miles, we are confronting the possibility that some of the changes we face are no longer a part of nature, but instead are manifested by a loss of relationship with it, and perhaps a desperate attempt to hold onto nature as it slips away.  Herein lies a great moment of transition, requiring more than “threshold guides” and farmers doing their work in separate places where their paths often never meet.  It’s time to let go of rugged individualism and renegade attitudes that no longer serve our community, and acknowledge that the nomadic lifestyle and fervor of wilderness survival is not the model for a sustainable future.  The purpose of rites-of-passage has always been to serve a community not the ego, and what better way to humble ourselves and restore our communities than working side by side creating ritual and ceremony through the timeless action of planting seeds and honoring the struggle of growth in a garden.

To be a wilderness guide and a farmer at this time in history is to know what it feels like to beat a drum in the darkness, and to bare witness to a sacred wound that seems to never stop bleeding.  Farming is a good reminder that learning from nature is not a one-way street; it requires giving back, a return to community with something to offer, integrating through action a sense of purpose and necessity within society.  For wilderness guides and sustainable farmers willing to share the responsibility of initiation, and help usher the world into a more hopeful future, a primordial land dance awaits us!


April 11, 2013

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A Growing Concern

The following article by Diana Ballon was featured in Cross Currents-The Journal of Addiction and Mental Health Autumn 2012 | Vol 16 No 1.


A Growing Concern

Horticulture therapy offers potent opportunities for healing and growth

By Diana Ballon

Work in the garden “takes priority over interacting with my symptoms,” says Toshio Ushiroguchi-Pigott. “It’s a kind of medicine in a way, to be outside,” caring for plants, harvesting, weeding and seeding in the greenhouse on days it’s too cold outside, says Toshio, who enjoys dropping by CAMH’s Sunshine Garden near his home to garden whenever he can. Run by FoodShare Toronto in partnership with CAMH, the Sunshine Garden uses horticultural principles to teach clients about food security, provide skills training and nurture self-confidence and healthy leisure activity.

“Going outside in a park is what I used to do when I was overwhelmed by symptoms,” says Toshio, an outpatient with CAMH’s Archway Clinic. He has found it’s even healthier to actively work in a garden; his involvement in gardening has since propelled him to enroll in a landscape design certificate program at Ryerson University.

Many people—like Toshio—have discovered the healing powers of horticulture therapy (HT), a formal practice involving the use of plants, the garden and horticultural activities to “promote well-being for its participant,” as defined by the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA). The benefits of horticulture therapy can take many forms, from physical and cognitive, to spiritual and emotional.

Gardening and surrounding yourself in nature have obvious therapeutic benefits that have been recognized for centuries: as far back as ancient Egypt, “mentally disturbed” royalty were advised by court physicians to roam in the palace garden as a means of relaxation and healing. Over the past 60 years, horticulture therapy has increasingly been recognized as an evidence-based practice. Horticulture therapy study has evolved to educational programs that offer assessment procedures, and concrete therapeutic goals for its participants, based on each person’s needs. The therapy is now practised extensively in a range of Canadian settings—in prisons, vocational rehabilitation programs, psychiatric hospitals, consumer-survivor businesses, community gardens, with mental health and addiction programs—and with almost any population group you can think of, from children and troubled teens to older adults with dementia and people with physical disabilities.

When I was first assigned this story, I thought, can I actually write 2,500 words on this topic? Aren’t the calming benefits of gardening and being in green space obvious, and the meditative, soothing effects of weeding and planting relatively predictable? What I found was a much more researched and sophisticated practice than I had imagined.

Countless studies attest to the success of horticulture therapy in everything from reducing recidivism in at-risk youth, to reducing aggression in adolescents who have been institutionalized, to reducing cortisol levels, improving self-esteem, helping people to feel less stressed and anxious, reducing the severity of depression and improving perceived attentional capacity and ability to concentrate in people who are depressed—the latter from an article published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

“In the past 25 years, horticulture therapy has really been given a whole lot of attention and research,” says Travis Slagle, a land supervisor for Pacific Quest’s Sustainable Life Skills program in Hawaii, speaking on LA Talk Radio about his program.

“You are in a restorative environment. As I tell the students, the garden will never judge you…. It places the client or student in a caregiving role, and gives them a sense of efficacy and purpose in being able to provide the care, rather than their being the ones that need the care,” he says.

The first registered horticultural therapist in Canada, Mitchell Hewson introduced horticulture therapy into psychiatry in Canada in 1974, with the opening of the horticulture therapy program at Homewood Health Centre, a mental health and addiction facility in Guelph, Ontario. It’s a program that he still manages almost 40 years later.

In this time, the program has burgeoned: about 230 patients participate in the program each week, with HT being used as an adjunct to other forms of treatment they will receive while they’re at Homewood. The program has three full-time horticulture therapists on staff, and about 40 volunteers and interns that come from as far away as Korea, Japan and China to train in how to use HT as a specialized tool in mental health/psychiatry. With a 47-acre property as backdrop, landscaped gardens, a state-of-the-art conservatory and teaching classrooms, it is an ideal setting for learning—and finding sanctuary in the process.

Hewson explains the seductiveness of the teachings, and the universal appeal of being in green space. “Most people can relate to nature in some way. You walk on it. You eat it. You breathe it. It’s all around you.” Whether you appreciate the smell of a rose, or the taste of mint, somehow we can all find a connection to nature.

“Where do you find a sense of peace? A sense of sanctuary?” he asks rhetorically.

Rather than having a preset program for patients, Hewson tailors the program differently depending on the person’s diagnosis—whether it’s anorexia, posttraumatic stress, a drinking problem or a combination of these or other mental health or addiction issues.

In 2005, Homewood began using horticulture therapy to treat patients with concurrent substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorders. “The premise of this program is to provide sanctuary, bereavement and reconnection through community,” says Hewson. The seven-week program may include what he describes as “psychological burials,” in which patients bury, burn or plant an object such as a letter or audiotape—something that physically connects them to the moment of trauma— as a ritual to help them move from being a victim to being a survivor.

In illustrating the power of this exercise, Hewson gives the example of a woman who expunged the trauma of an abusive father by crushing and smashing roses from her father’s coffin and putting them in Homewood’s memorial garden on the last day of her stay. She later describes her experience: “Since then I still have had painful memories of my father’s abuse, but I now feel surrounded by my higher power and I feel safe and comforted.”

In Homewood’s horticultural program for people with eating disorders, the focus is slightly different. With eating disorders, “they seek perfection” and control, says Hewson. Through the program, “we bring patients into a safe environment, and then work to help them replace their preoccupation with food with a healthier, creative focus,” he says. We offer activities where they can have fun, and feel joy, Hewson says, letting go of the intense focus they’ve had toward food issues. This may involve designing a miniature Japanese garden in a glass container, making botanical prints, going on nature walks or experimenting with herbology. They also use psycho- aromatherapy, in which they make or apply creams and essential oils with plant derivatives for massage, and as a way of self-nurturing. “Most people need to be nurtured,” says Hewson. Smells can also be strong triggers for trauma and other memories that can be replaced by more calming aromas created from these plant-based creams, explains Hewson, who is also a certified aromatherapist.

A horticulture therapy practice for dementia involves using the same client-centred Rogerian approach as is used for other populations, but adapting the pace of the program, so that clients are still challenged and stimulated by the work, without becoming overwhelmed. Hewson, who lost both his mother and mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s, says he finds this work particularly rewarding. Patients benefit from the social aspect of gardening, the physical work involved, and the “memory enhancer,” effect—recalling past skills they had in gardening, and gardens they’ve enjoyed. Therapists can assess patients’ cognitive functioning and build a rapport with them without the direct confrontation required in a more clinical setting. Working with plants also builds their self-confidence and improves their mood: activities range from group projects to dry herbs and make wreaths, to smashing pots and hoeing as a way to let out anger and aggression.

With patients with addictions, Hewson describes using various therapeutic plants—such as the dwarf orange tree, whose orange blossoms have antidepressant properties. Certain plants can be used to make creams, which can be self-soothing and nurturing to clients, and an alternative way of calming themselves, instead of using addictive substances. Clients who are in the program for 35 days will take a cutting from a plant, learn to nurture it, and bring it home with them.

Transplant yourself to the other side of the world, and you’ll find a program that draws on healing powers of the garden and rich metaphors of growth in its work with teens. Although not a registered horticulture therapy program, Pacific Quest is an intriguing outdoor therapeutic program where teens and young adults live for two to three months to learn what they refer to as a “sustainable life skill,” which includes elements of horticulture therapy as well as a wellness curriculum and rites of passage work. Students sleep in bunkhouses, and spend the bulk of their days in organic gardens where they tend plants, weed, harvest and then use the produce they’ve cultivated to cook for each other, and sell to a local farmer’s market, says Kathryn Kasenchak, one of the program’s psychologists.

“Growth of the plant can reflect growth of the self,” and transplanting can be a rich metaphor for the process students go through, says Kasenchak. “Like plants, the students’ roots can outgrow the environment they grew up in. They may need to temporarily leave home, as a way to recognize and then abandon maladaptive patterns that they’ve become familiar with. When they do, they—like plants—usually go through some shock. But they come to recognize that change doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable. They may not do so well at first, but it [leaving home] is necessary to achieve their full potential,” she explains. Students go through their own process of transplanting.

“I like to use the analogy of the soil,” says Kasenchak. “Soil is dirty, but it also nourishes.… Sometimes the work is dirty, because it involves dredging up difficult issues to then move forward.”

In the program, therapists give different roles to students based on therapeutic goals; for instance, they may assign a resident who has had a hard time addressing difficult things in his or her own life to work in composting. “Compost becomes analogous to these unaddressed issues. The longer it is unattended, the grosser and stinkier it can become,” says Kasenchak. Someone else who needs nurturing, and has family of origin issues, may be assigned to work in the nursery tending to baby plants, she says.

Gardening work is also used to teach students skills that can be directly applied to their own lives, such as executive functioning, Kasenchak says. “A lot of students who have gone through the mental health system have trouble with planning, task initiation and completion,” Kasenchak says. “The garden helps them to break down different tasks in life into more manageable pieces.” They learn math skills involved in portioning out food, and gain information on nutrition, diet, cooking and time management. “We also encourage and teach mindfulness practices and suggest certain activities, such as weeding, be done silently, so they can see what arises for them.”

Weeding is another interesting metaphor, she muses. “With weeds, you have to keep tending the garden. You get the weeds out, but then they come back next week…. Some weeds are deceiving because they can look really pretty.”

The program has a community focus, in that each resident’s role is interdependent, and proceeds from sales of their produce at the farmer’s market goes to community organizations. As Slagle comments in the radio interview, their approach reflects a whole new paradigm, a shift from the “rugged individualism of our culture to a more collective approach of what we give versus what we take.”

In offices overtop PARC—Toronto’s Parkdale-Activity Recreation Centre—HT is an activity that people can make a living off. Here at Parkdale Green Thumb Enterprises, employees are hired to plant, water, prune, fertilize, mulch, weed or do other landscaping services to beautify Toronto streets and businesses. Employees at this consumer-survivor business all have mental health issues, and struggle with poverty—plights that are common in Parkdale where substandard rooming houses, boarding homes and a psychiatric hospital have been home for many people trying to rise out of difficult conditions.

“A lot of people have been isolated, and told they can’t work or shouldn’t work, or when they tried to work, there was no accommodation, so they’re afraid to work,” says Green Thumb’s business manager Maggie Griffin. “You have to understand the culture of people with mental health and addiction issues,” she says. Many have experienced extended abuse, some have come from small communities, are recent immigrants or refugees, or may have lived on the street or couch surfed.

At Green Thumb, employees are given a chance to succeed, rather than being further stigmatized and alienated for the problems they are trying to cope with. And they can do this work within the often meditative and nurturing environment of plant life.

“We’re here to support, but we’re not social workers,” says Griffin. If someone needs accommodation, to take time off, they can do that without getting fired or being asked for a reason why they can’t work. Staff are paid to participate in staff meetings, paid for their training and can take part in different staff outings. They work three hours per day for as many days a week as they can manage, and are paid between $10.50 and $15 per hour for their work.

One employee has been at Green Thumbs for almost 11 years. “I feel a lot better about myself,” she says of her work there. “I can keep a job.” After leaving an abusive marriage, coming to Green Thumb meant that she could get back on her feet, and even afford a shared apartment near the program.

Of course, the seductiveness of green space and the power of not just observing, but participating in the plant world around us keep many of us sane. I rely on daily walks with my dog in High Park to bring stillness to an often overengaged mind. Thoughts slow down. I feel the same breeze that brushes against the leaves, that nudges the bushes, that sweeps past the trees.

On Hewson’s homepage, he quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes, “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Hewson himself comments on the “magical and curative powers of nature… Nature is forgiving; if a plant dies, another can be grown in its place.” While gardening may be dirty, the effects can be restorative. And the experience of caring for an other, rather than being cared for, has potent benefits.

Diana Ballon is an editor at CAMH, and a freelance writer specializing in mental health issues.

Horticultural Therapy and Its Benefits

Lea Tran is the horticultural therapist at the Guelph Enabling Garden in Guelph, Ontario. In addition to running inclusive, imaginative and lively programs and the garden, she blogs about all the events and takes photos too. She and Trina Alix, a fellow registered HT, put together this list to show just how many benefits can be found in HT. Read more at

  • Cognitive benefits
  • Promote memories
  • Learn and share skills
  • Communicate ideas
  • Make choices and plan
  • Use the imagination
  • Maintain/improve attention span
  • Emotional benefits
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Relax in a beautiful setting
  • Discover interesting new hobbies
  • Feel like an important part of the community
  • Feel empowered and independent
  • Express oneself creatively
  • Physical benefits
  • Hands-on work
  • Sensory awareness
  • Nutritious organic herbs and vegetables
  • Fine/gross motor skills
  • Eye/hand co-ordination
  • Strength and balance
  • Exercise, fresh air and sunshine
  • Spiritual benefits
  • Sense of purpose and meaning
  • Life review
  • Motivate and inspire
  • Acceptance
  • Sense of interconnection with wildlife
  • Presence
  • Heal with energetic properties of plants
  • Social benefits
  • Get outside, meet new people and network
  • Teamwork-building skills
  • Make a difference in the community
  • Improve supportive relationships

February 7, 2013

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A New Perspective in Wilderness & Horticultural Therapy

This article, written by Travis Slagle, Horticultural Therapy Director, was recently published in the AHTA News Magaizine, a quarterly publication of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy ProgramIn the classic Hawaiian gardener’s book, Tropical Organic Gardening: Hawaiian Style author Richard Stevens famously wrote, “The art of gardening and the art of living come together in the organic garden.” For parents with a teenager in crisis, the concept of sending a child away to live and work in a therapeutic gardening program with the hope of discovering their own “art of living” might sound like wishful thinking. Indeed, the notion that gardening could save a child’s life is a bold statement and not without critics. However, this is the same skepticism that wilderness and adventure therapy programs have faced for decades, and yet these types of nature-based therapy programs continue to dominate the outdoor behavioral health care industry with estimated revenues of over $200 million per year in the United States (OBHIC Technical Report #26, 2000). Organized in 1997, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC) describes itself as “a community of leading outdoor behavioral healthcare programs working to advance the field through best practices, effective treatment, and evidence-based research.” OBHIC consists primarily of outdoor wilderness treatment programs with many of the organizations seeking new ways to broaden their approach to nature-based therapy, becoming more clinically sophisticated, and reaching an increasingly diverse client population. This is where horticultural therapy has the potential to be a game changer in the outdoor behavioral healthcare industry.

The evolution of wilderness therapy and horticultural therapy (HT) share a similar story of learning about one’s self from nature. Most wilderness therapy programs rely on indigenous skills, not just for survival but for creating meaning, often through the archetypes of nomadic people. Whereas the nomad and survivalist learn by confronting nature as an adversary, the sustainable farmer learns by working with nature as a teacher.

Digging in the soil and planting seeds that bear fruit for future generations was once a sacred responsibility that brought families and communities together for a common purpose. By utilizing the indigenous knowledge and archetypes of the sustainable gardener and ancient agriculturalist, horticultural therapy practitioners have the potential to play a key role in providing a more holistic and nurturing approach to traditional wilderness therapy. Furthermore, deepening the awareness of the plant- person relationship can lead to more powerful therapeutic benefits. Thus, HT and wilderness therapy practitioners stand to improve the quality of care, increase the crossover of ideas in nature-based therapies, and inevitably reach more clients in need of innovative treatment.

There is growing evidence that suggests outdoor therapy programs that incorporate therapeutic horticulture activities for struggling teens can meet the same treatment outcomes as a traditional hiking program without the risk. Mental health practitioners working with struggling teens often witness the dilemma described by David Whyte, who said, “We are the only species that can refuse our own flowering.” Horticultural therapists are uniquely positioned to impart the skills and insight to understand why young people refuse their own potential.    Bringing innovation and fresh perspective to traditional outdoor treatment, horticultural therapy practitioners can make a significant impact on the future of outdoor therapy, allowing clients to experience the wildness of nature and the mysteries of life through the patchwork of relationships and interconnections in a garden.

Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative- University of New Hampshire

National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs

Outdoor Behavior Healthcare Industry Council

Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Commission (2000). Technical Report #26. Retrieved November 25, 2012 from