COLLEGE STATION — Flowers, shrubs and trees in surroundings frequented by humans for years have been considered an environmentally healthy choice. But researchers now are finding that those plants also improve the mental, physical and social health of people as well.
“There’s no reason why anyone who wants to participate in gardening shouldn’t be able to do so,” said Dr. Joe Novak, senior lecturer in the horticulture department. “We adapt gardens to fit whatever the situation is.”
Easy enough to garden, some might think. But consider the poor, the mentally ill, the physically impaired, the incarcerated, the elderly, the young, those with hectic careers, Novak pointed out. All are segments of the population that could benefit from gardening, not only in the products but from the self-satisfaction that comes from caring for the plants.
Plants benefitting people is not a new concept. Whether called horticultural therapy, socio-horticulture or urban horticulture, this concept was first recognized as an academic discipline in the mid- 1950s. The emphasis on people-plant relationships as a focus has been increasing in Texas A&M’s horticultural science department.
Research and graduate study efforts under Dr. Jayne Zajicek, associate horticulture professor, have looked at prisons, elementary school children and juvenile delinquents.
“We, as horticulturists, have always known that plants have beneficial effects on humans, but we are trying to quantify these benefits through good, scientific research,” Zajicek said.
That research already has found that women inmates reporting a history of substance abuse had an increase in life-satisfaction while participating in a Master Gardener program. Additionally, elementary students who participated in garden programs had more positive environmental attitudes. And, the “Green Brigade” project, which requires juvenile delinquents to study horticulture in classrooms and then perform outside landscaping services weekly, is looking at both self-concept and environmental attitudes, she noted.
Pat Williams sees self-images improve like flowers with timely doses of fertilizer and water and care. As one of two instructors for the horticulture program at the women’s Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, he quizzes student inmates on the benefits of horticulture during the 14-week course.
“Gaining knowledge, self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment are things that are typically reported by the women,” said Williams, a horticulture doctoral candidate.
He said that the inmates also are allowed to consume produce from the gardens they plant, grow and maintain.
“We tell them it’s their program,” Williams noted. “If their gardens look great, they take all the credit.”
The women also take care of all the flower beds, all interiorscapes in the prison, and this spring planted a herb garden which has been supplying herbs to the prison’s kitchen.
The social aspects of horticulture, such as those Williams notes in the prison, turn up in various settings where people and plants interact. That’s what Novak hopes to demonstrate among his students. He said involving students, from freshmen to graduate students with people who want to take up the United States’ largest hobby — gardening — solidifies their education.
Novak requires students to complete a project with “real people” who are seeking advice on initiating gardening projects. Among the projects tackled by his classes are a garden at a local shelter for abused children, a garden with wide paths for wheelchairs at a nursing home, a garden with adult day care center attendees, an after school garden for a girls’ club in an “at-risk” area, a community garden aimed at improving surroundings in a neighborhood threatened by drug trafficking and abuse.
“It’s so different to get out there and rub shoulders with the minorities, the elderly, the sick, the poor,” Novak said. “Often students are hesitant to get involved, but then they see that we all are people, and they see that it’s more than books. They see can apply their education to help others.”