By Susan Morgan
Registered horticultural therapist Ellen Jones’ enthusiasm for her chosen line of work in horticultural therapy (HT) is immediately felt when you ask her to describe her favorite plants. She says that zinnias are essential to include in her outdoor therapeutic gardens. “I can overlook the powdery mildew that zinnias tend to get on their leaves by the end of the season because they are so versatile for my programs.” She especially likes how their bright, colorful flowers are visually stimulating and attract butterflies. “To me, butterflies are moving flowers.” She uses several zinnia varieties with her program participants for floral arranging.
Valued for its sweet, calming fragrance, lavender is Jones’ favorite herb to use in HT programming. “Everybody is familiar with lavender,” she says. “The relaxation component that it evokes is wonderful.” She recommends harvesting lavender flowers from the garden to dry. Once they are dried, work with participants to strip the flowers from the stems and use that material to make potpourri. “It smells so good while you work.”
Finding Inspiration through Horticultural Therapy
The foundation for Jones’ passion for horticulture was established while growing up on a hobby farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Jones was first introduced to the concept of horticultural therapy through her high school’s horticulture program. One afternoon, she observed a therapeutic horticulture activity for adults with developmental disabilities in action at the school greenhouse. “I thought that was so cool,” she said, and this experience made an imprint.
Jones attended college at Virginia Tech, majoring in horticulture. She learned about the specialization in horticultural therapy – which reminded her of that positive high school experience – and pursued that as her academic course of study. HT pioneer and advocate Dr. Diane Relf served as her advisor. Before she completed her studies, Jones completed a six-month internship at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, under the mentorship of HT practitioners Mona Gold and, later, Martha Strauss. Of the many positive aspects of this internship, she particularly enjoyed working with patients in psychiatric treatment and aimed to work with this population in the future.
After graduation, Jones worked for an organization that provided paid landscape horticulture work for adults with developmental disabilities in a sheltered work environment. Former supervisor Strauss tipped her off to a possible job opportunity within the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Jones landed a position as a horticultural therapist.
Serving Veterans through Horticultural Therapy
Jones currently works with veterans in outpatient and long term residential care. Ranging in age from 19 to 100 years old, her program participants include veterans who are working through post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental health issues and may have experienced homelessness or substance abuse. Each participant is referred to her by his or her primary care physician, and she develops treatment plans, with documented goals and objectives for each person. Her general objectives are to provide opportunities for psychosocial and cognitive stimulation, as well as connect participants with positive, meaningful engagement with nature. “If I can spark an interest in horticulture, even if they don’t pursue it professionally, that’s a potential, positive hobby, instead of abusing substances or doing something counterproductive.”
Her current HT programs include one- to two-hour group sessions and some one-on-one sessions. Jones utilizes an indoor clinic area, adjacent greenhouse and potting room, and outdoor garden areas with raised beds. In the greenhouse, program participants grow a variety of tropical and succulent plants in the organically maintained greenhouse. She avoids using chemical pesticides in the greenhouse as well as plants that tend to get “buggy.” Instead, she prefers to use yellow sticky traps to catch insect pests and employ good cultural practices, for which participants help in removing dead leaves, trimming plants back to promote good air circulation, and otherwise keeping the area as clean as possible.
Jones offers a variety of seasonal indoor and outdoor activities, including floral arrangements, bonsai, tabletop Zen gardens, and sand terrariums, among others. A kitchen gardening activity transforms grocery store produce, such as pineapples, avocadoes, sweet potatoes, and citrus seeds, into houseplants. “You can even force a pineapple to fruit by wrapping a plastic bag around the plant and throw two ripe apples into the bag,” she says. “This [ethylene gas from the apples] forces the pineapple plant to flower and then fruit.” She also leads seasonal identification and observation groups. For example, she collects leaves from various trees, like oak, maple, beech, and birch, and then the group examines the leaves. “It’s amazing how many people can’t tell the difference between the trees until they really look at them.”
Jones recently celebrated 31 years of service and is still just as thrilled in her position as a horticultural therapist as she was during her first year. “I just love my job,” she says enthusiastically. She continues to find inspiration from her program participants and the plants in the gardens and greenhouse.