Horticulture therapy program at Perley Rideau bears fruit

Residents at the Perley and Rideau Veteran's Health Centre in Ottawa are taking part in a horticulture therapy program, designed to boost their emotional and physical well-being by encouraging them to work together with seeds, soil, and plants.

Fertile soil, seeds and plants and the companionship of kindred spirits

Horticulture therapist Sarah Shapiro (centre) helps Alex Kowbel (left) and Frank Smith (right) pot some annuals as part of the horticultural therapy program at the Perley and Rideau Veteran's Health Centre. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

You might call it gardening, but for residents at the Perley and Rideau Veteran's Health Centre, it's called horticulture therapy.

Participants in the health centre's program — some of whom are centenarians — plant seeds, nurse the resulting seedlings, and generally coax greenery to grow in an outdoor courtyard.

And it's more than just recreation. 

"I grew up as a child during the Depression. You grew a garden to eat," said 98-year-old Alex Kowbel, one of the program's participants. "You couldn't wait for the corn crop to come up in the fall. Potatoes … radishes, carrots, kohlrabi, fruits. They were always part of our meals."

A veteran of the Second World War and the Korean World War, Kowbel grew up gardening with his extended family in Melville, Sask. 

After a year of COVID-19 restrictions, he relishes the time he spends outdoors in the leafy courtyard.

"I feel not as hemmed in," he said.

Sarah Shapiro just received her formal designation as a horticulture therapist, after seven years of study. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Emotional and physical benefits

The horticulture program is part of the Perley Rideau's therapeutic recreation and creative arts program.

Working with the soil, seeds and plants outdoors helps with participants' physical, social and emotional well-being, said Sarah Shapiro, who just received her professional designation as a registered horticultural therapist.

"They can feel plants, they can smell the fragrant flowers. They can make contact with water or the soil, hear the sound of the birds … even taste the edible flowers and herbs," said Shapiro.

"It really incorporates all the sensory activities," said Shapiro.

Shapiro has experienced nature's tonic herself. 

"It's helped me with chronic pain, with a learning disability, even with fear and stress surrounding my sexual orientation," said Shapiro, who is gay. "Therapeutic horticulture elements really have helped me personally."

Alex Kowbel shows off an aloe vera plant that he's grown from a tiny offshoot as part of the Perley Rideau's horticulture therapy program. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Another participant, Frank Smith, doesn't pretend to have a green thumb.

"No! I come here to enjoy the outside. I've helped them out here for a short while, digging," Smith said.

Smith, who's also a Second World War veteran, grew up in Montreal with a small family flower garden — and decided at age 103 to tackle the vagaries of gardening.

"You enjoy life more. You get something that you didn't have before," said Smith, explaining why he takes part. "Life has to have a little variety." 

'Using all the senses'

Last Friday's project had residents potting annuals left over from the courtyard planters, painstakingly transferring soil with small garden implements.

"Some residents will also just dump the soil into pots. Horticulture therapy is not always about the activity itself or the final product," Shapiro said.

"It's really about the process of doing and learning and talking, sharing and reflecting and then also engaging with one's environment using all the senses."

The program also enhances motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination and helps residents build strength so that they can maintain "active daily living," she said. Working with seeds, soil, and plants all help participants keep nimble so that they can bathe, get dressed, or brush their teeth and hair.

Frank Smith, 103, prepares to pot a petunia. (Hallie Cotnam)

"I wouldn't call myself a gardener," said Yvon Coté, a 35-year veteran of the Canadian military. "If it's nice out, I like to go out."

Coté, 79, has been working the soil in a flowerbed just outside his ground-floor window, with help from his daughter.

"I enjoy doing stuff like that, especially with my daughter."

Shapiro has noticed a particular benefit in the outdoor courtyard sessions this spring, after so many months of pandemic restrictions which limited residents' movements within the complex.

"It helps awaken more positive emotions, better relationships with each other, and really just helps with all the uncertain and difficult times [during] COVID."