Taking root: the development of a hospital garden – Park Maintenance

Kristen A. Johnson

When we arrived we were alone, far away from home, in a completely different environment. The first few days were a hard adjustment. I had so many emotions running through my mind. I didn’t know where to start. This garden was more helpful than anyone could imagine. It gave me a chance to calm down and start working on things that needed to be done. I organized my mind so I could be there for my son. — Dean, parent

Maintaining and beautifying grounds at any facility can be a costly and labor-intensive task. Building and Grounds Departments might find unique opportunities for assistance by tapping into the Recreation Therapy Department’s creative resources. By implementing gardening and horticulture programs, work can be deferred to clients who receive therapeutic benefits from planting and maintaining the flowers and shrubs that decorate the landscape.

Planting a Seed

The Recreation Therapy/Child Life Department at Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago has recently renovated two outside areas, turning them from underutilized and fairly unattractive areas into gardens teaming with color. The idea for these gardens emerged as the Recreation Therapists began to notice a large number of patients who indicated gardening as an activity they enjoyed doing with family members. Therefore, implementing a gardening program at the hospital would be a natural progression in providing normalization of the environment.

The first step in this process was to obtain support from other departments. Approval from administration was required as well as support and cooperation from the grounds and maintenance department. Both had to be assured that the garden would contribute to the beautification of the landscape, have therapeutic value for the patients, and that Recreation Therapy staff would ascertain full responsibility for this area.

Choosing a site for each garden was next on the agenda. These areas had to be easily accessible to patients and the staff. They also had to be in a place that had a great deal of pedestrian traffic and were highly visible in order to initiate and keep the interest of potential supporters. The garden areas at Shriners Hospital were eventually implemented at such sites — in the backyard close to an entrance by several picnic tables (where many patients, families, and staff often eat meals, take breaks, and relax). Once these two steps had been completed, it was time to get dirty.

From Mud to Masterpiece

With the help of a Bobcat and several husky volunteers, the old unsightly landscaping dissolved. When the volunteers departed, only a fresh bed of black dirt remained. Patients, parents, volunteers, and staff then went to work designing and sowing the garden.

The plants arrived from a variety of resources. The patients and staff of Shriners Hospital jumped at the opportunity to contribute to this budding project. A “Plants and Pizza Day” was created by the Recreation Therapy Department. Pizza was provided in exchange for the donation of a plant. The party launched great curiosity for this project, with more than 40 plants joining our garden that day.

More plants emerged after a young man adopted the gardens as his Eagle Scout project. He was able to collect over 100 perennials through various donors, both individual and corporate. The transformation of color and plants seemed to bloom overnight. This project reached out to the community and sparked external support.

Furthermore, groups of local Shriners indicated an interest in sponsoring individual areas of the garden. This involved financial support for needed resources. Not only were more plants and gardening supplies purchased, but garden craft projects were also provided for patients to construct. These accessories provided more depth to the garden.

Surprisingly, plants continued to arise without the knowledge of the Recreation Therapy Department staff. These plants have added a magical feel to the garden, leading the younger children to believe in garden fairies. Thus, each visit to the garden can become a new adventure.

When all was said and done, the Recreation Therapy Department creatively utilized all their resources in order to decrease both financial and labor barriers. By creatively utilizing staff, patients, and volunteers from the community, these two gardens, entailing over 1,500 square feet, were implemented with almost no cost to the hospital ($29.50). Each garden was well established after only one growing season. The financial barriers and time constraints were eliminated.

Once the gardens were designed and the initial footwork was completed, patients and family members continued with the care of shrubs and flowers. The impact of the garden has seemingly had two outcomes for patients and families: the satisfaction of nurturing another living element, and the creation of a calming environment in which to meditate. Not only did the plants continue to thrive, but also more importantly the patients grew through the psychosocial benefits of gardening.

Green and Growing

Implications in caring for a plant become one of the benefits of horticulture. The responsibility learned through gardening activities may transfer into patients taking an active role in nurturing their own well-being. Consequently, caring for a plant becomes a tool of self-expression while enhancing self-esteem.

Self-expression can be an activity of solitude or it can increase socialization and team building among patients. Working side by side with peers helps to develop relationships and common interests. This is important because the formation of a group identity is significant in the social development and psychological well-being of children and adolescents.

Age appropriateness is also an important component in any group project. The use of arts and crafts offers a good medium to successfully account for various developmental and ability levels. Colorful birdhouses and beautiful mosaic tiles enhance the appearance of the garden and allow children to express their creativity.

These accessories are easily spotted adding a sense of ownership to the children adorning these treasures.

Container gardening is another accessory that was introduced as a supplementary activity in the winter in order to continue yearlong interest. The patients are involved in decorating their own terra cotta planter prior to growing the flower of their choice. Patients feel a sense of achievement and pride over watching this new life grow. These containers are then transitioned outside to enhance the existing gardens in the spring.

The current design of the garden leaves room for future adaptations. In conjunction with a multi-million dollar construction project, the Recreation Therapy Department hopes to increase the accessibility of the gardens. Brick paths through the garden, lined with raised beds, would allow children in wheelchairs to more easily participate.

In Full Bloom

Since the conception of the gardens, the Recreation Therapy Department has been flooded with positive feedback. Testimonials from patients and parents who have used the garden as a healing tool to help overcome adversity can be read throughout this article.

It is the hopes and intentions of the Recreation Therapy Department that the patient gardens will become areas that people of all abilities and ages can enjoy.

By creatively utilizing assets, common grounds can become an effective means of merging departments and enabling patients and parents to receive the holistic benefits of gardening. This decorative landscape is more than meets the eyes.

Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies


The following agencies are recognized as an accredited park and recreation agency by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies, by having fully demonstrated their commitment to the park and recreation field by complying with a body of standards deemed essential to the quality of services delivered and the professionalism of their operational system.

1. Monmouth County Park System,

New Jersey

Accredited February 1994

2. Parish of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Accredited February 1994

3. Northbrook Park District, Illinois

Accredited February 1994

4. City of Asheville Parks, Recreation &

Public Facilities Dept., North Carolina

Accredited February 1994

5. City of Greenfield Parks and

Recreation Department, Indiana

Accredited October 1994

6. City of Piano Parks and Recreation

Department, Texas

Accredited October 1994

7. City of Roseville Parks and Recreation

Department, Minnesota

Accredited October 1994

8. City of Scottsdale Community Services

Department, Arizona

Accredited October 1994

9. Miami-Dade County Park and

Recreation Department, Florida

Accredited October 1995

10. City of Lenexa Parks and Recreation

Department, Kansas

Accredited October 1995

11. Newton Recreation Commission

Board, Kansas

Accredited October 1996

12. City of Germantown Parks and

Recreation Department, Tennessee

Accredited October 1996

13. City of Kettering, Parks Recreation and

Cultural Arts Department, Ohio

Accredited November 1996

14. Broward County Parks and Recreation

Division, Florida

Accredited February 1997

15. Town of Gates Recreation and Parks

Department, New York

Accredited October 1997

16. City of Franklin Parks and

Recreation, Indiana

Accredited October 1997

17. City of Columbus Parks and

Recreation Department, Georgia

Accredited September 1998

18. Chicago Park District, Illinois

Accredited September 1998

19. City of Virginia Beach Department of

Parks and Recreation, Virginia

Accredited February 1999

20. City of Alpharetta Recreation and

Parks Department, Georgia

Accredited February 1999

21. Kansas City Parks and Recreation

Department, Missouri

Accredited February 1999

22. City of Largo Department of Recreation

and Parks, Florida

Accredited October 1999

23. Johnson County Park and Recreation

District, Kansas

Accredited October 1999

24. City of Delray Beach Parks and

Recreation Department, Florida

Accredited March 2000

25. City of Gainesville Parks and

Recreation Agency, Georgia

Accredited March 2000

26. Martin County Parks and Recreation

Department, Florida

Accredited March 2000

27. City of Salisbury Parks and Recreation

Department, North Carolina

Accredited October 2000

28. City of Henderson Parks and

Recreation Department, Nevada

Accredited February 2001

29. City of Bloomington Parks and

Recreation Department, Indiana

Accredited February 2001

30. City of Little Rock Parks and

Recreation Department, Arkansas

Accredited February 2001

31. East Lansing Recreation and Arts,


Accredited February 2001

32. Lee County Parks and Recreation,


Accedited October 2001

33. City of Coral Gables Parks and

Recreation Department, Florida

Accredited October 2001

For further information on how your agency can become accredited,

contact NRPA, Michelle Herrera, CPRP, at (703) 858-2152; e-mail:

mherrera@nrpa.org or online at www.nrpa.org

Check out “Taking Root: The Development of a Hospital Garden” by Kristen A. Johnson, MS, CTRS, Melanie K. Bland, CCLS, CTRS, and Shannon M. Rathsam, CTRS, on page 60. Johnson graduated with a BS in 1986 from the University of Iowa, and received an MS in 1996 in Recreation Administration from Aurora University. She enjoys the outdoors and is currently working on obtaining a Landscape Horticulture Certificate from the Modern Arboretum. Bland is dually certified as a child life specialist and a recreation therapist. She graduated from Indiana University in 1997 and enjoys recreation and leisure activities. Currently, she is working on re-landscaping her home. Rathsam graduated from Indiana University in 2000. She spends her free time outside rollerblading, swimming and walking. She was inspired to create a butterfly garden at the hospital after watching her neighbor’s butterfly garden flourish.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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