For nine years, lecturer Leah Diehl of the Department of Environmental Horticulture has been one of UF/IFAS’s foremost champions of plants as medicine. As a tenant in the medical center, in a corner known as Wilmot Botanical Gardens, she has established a greenhouse as a center for healing.
Diehl and department chair Dean Kopsell see the next one to two years as a key moment to deliver the benefits of horticultural therapy to a wider populace.
Their vision is to make the greenhouse a place to address widespread anxiety and isolation that preceded the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it. They see the greenhouse and its classroom as potential magnets to recruit future green industry professionals. They also want it to serve, as it has in the recent past, as a place to prepare developmentally disabled people for jobs.
Kopsell has committed to pursuing this vision as he embarks this month on an 18-month leadership program that requires a capstone project. He’s chosen the establishment of a horticultural therapy minor as that project. With the three courses Diehl already teaches as its backbone, the idea is this minor will attract students from across the entire university.
This could mean an expanded pipeline of professional talent for the green industry. It would reinforce a core message of the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences about the plethora of career opportunities for those who study agriculture and natural resource-related fields.
Kopsell and Diehl want students coming to the Wilmot Gardens greenhouse from all 16 UF colleges but also from UF’s Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC). Kopsell has already initiated talks with the center director about establishing a process for referring students to the greenhouse.
In fact, Diehl, a certified horticultural therapist, opened up two group therapy sections for students this fall. Those sections quickly filled with students referred by CWC counselors or who self-referred, and there’s a waiting list for the spring.
Not only will the students receive therapy, but they have agreed to participate in the research study as Diehl and other faculty continue to develop our understanding of how working with our hands in a greenhouse can help our heads.
Diehl also hopes to revive the Autism Spectrum Disorder Job Skills Training Program, which is in a pandemic pause. In partnership with UF/IFAS professor emeritus Charlie Guy, it prepares students for FNGLA’s certified horticulture professional designation exam. Former president FNGLA President Ed Bravo, COO Linda Adams and director of certifications and career development Merry Mott attended the first graduation.
Kopsell, inspired by the work of FNGLA mainstay Ty Strode of AgriStarts, is a supporter of the training program. For years, AgriStarts has partnered with Orange County Public Schools special education department to train students in greenhouse jobs.
Some students become AgriStarts employees. A few have worked at the Apopka location for years at a stretch.
The program is consistent with Kopsell and Diehl’s philosophy of the greenhouse as a place to overcome challenges such as depression or disability. UF is one of the nation’s best-suited universities to pursue this, with its colleges of agriculture and medicine sharing a campus and with the nation’s largest green industry as allies, supporters and inspiration.
Diehl raises money for the upkeep of the greenhouses surrounding gardens, whose visitors include doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, patients and their families. Students, other university community members and local residents also visit to walk with colleagues or pets, eat lunch, stretch, meditate, or let children run and play in beautiful surroundings.
Anecdotally, Diehl hears from visitors that they come to de-stress and to focus on something other than their work or their ailments and what a great alternative it is to a waiting room.
It’s hard to say what the horticultural therapy program will look like in two years. But Kopsell and Diehl will be engaged in important work to advance the public’s understanding of plants beyond aesthetics and into the realm of healing.
Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).