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A place for plants to grow and people to recover

August 15, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Contributing Editor
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Many addiction treatment campuses feature spaces where patients receive the opportunity to appreciate nature and contemplate. Yet leaders at Memorial Hermann Prevention & Recovery Center in Houston have identified a way to make that experience significantly more hands-on and better integrated into the lessons learned in patient group sessions.

A therapeutic greenhouse, part of the center’s Serenity Gardens, came to be through a $700,000 fundraising campaign by the nonprofit treatment organization. Matt Feehery, the center’s CEO, especially likes the overall accessibility of gardening, which ranks in surveys atop the list of popular recreational activities.

“This is something that anybody can do, even if all you have is an apartment with room for a window box planter,” says Feehery. “It is not exclusive.”

He explains that the vision for a greenhouse developed out of plans to tear down an old storage structure on the campus and build something new and more useful on that site. The center would proceed to hire two master gardeners as facility employees; these individuals work closely with clinical staff to make sure that what patients encounter in their gardening experiences brings to life the themes they discuss in group treatment.

“The themes of recovery and growth go hand in hand,” says Feehery. “Some of the individuals we work with have never experienced nurturing things. If they’ve experienced growing anything, it’s been illegal things.”

Moreover, the visual nature of the greenhouse experience resonates with patients, particularly in the young-adult population. “You’ve got to keep things simple so that they understand that, ‘That’s something that also happens to me,’” Feehery says.

So a row of sunflowers that was purposely planted in a less-than-ideal location between a fence and a concrete walkway, but that still managed to flourish, carries the message that even in an adverse environment, one can achieve results.

In another exercise, one group of plants is supported by stakes to tie them together, while an adjacent collection of the same plants is left to grow on its own. Some of those plants fail, leading to the lesson that everyone needs support, particularly in early recovery.

The therapeutic greenhouse has been in place for more than a year. Because individuals’ stay in treatment is time-limited, the master gardeners carefully select what is grown, emphasizing fast-growing plants that help patients see the transformation of life firsthand within a month’s time.

A pond was also installed in the same section of the campus; the entire area has become very inviting for individuals in treatment at the center. Feehery sometimes marvels at how excited some patients get about this facet of their experience.

“There’s nothing better than seeing two executives peering through the glass, saying, ‘We just want to see how our plants are doing,’” he says. “These guys run banks, they’re engineers, they run companies, and they’re giddy about this.”

While patients are allowed to take home some of what they grow while they’re in treatment, the program always ends up with more plants than it has room for, so about once a quarter the center schedules a plant sale that is open to the public. Proceeds from the events go back into equipping the greenhouse and gardens.

Feehery says most patients are novices at gardening when they enter treatment at the center, but some abandoned the activity during their active addiction—along with most other activities that had been helpful to their well-being.

“We’re reintroducing people to something meaningful and enjoyable, and they can do this after they leave here,” he says.