Both teaching and Cooperative Extension offer an opportunity to work in ornamental horticulture while working with people on a personal level. In both situations, the clientele are usually healthy and typical of average Americans.
In addition, special populations of citizens can be served by ornamental horticulturists. The elderly, the physically handicapped, the mentally retarded, and the imprisoned have all been found responsive to therapists with horticultural skills.
Certain crafts of ornamental horticulture are eagerly learned by elderly citizens at club meetings, church groups, and even in nursing homes (Figure 18-2). Flower arranging, terrarium construction, house – plant care, seed propagation, and patio gardening are all activities that can be taught as part of a senior citizen’s activity program. Many of the elderly bring a rich background of gardening to their senior years and are knowledgeable students. Even the more infirm enjoy working with plants. Often their hands are still agile and talented even though their bodies are confined to chairs. Working with living, growing materials is satisfying for nearly everyone; the elderly are no exception. It also offers them an opportunity for role-reversal, in which they can direct the growth and well-being of a living thing instead of being the recipient of direction.
Although job opportunities exist in horticulture for handicapped workers, some may not yet be confident or skilled enough to enter the workforce. For the physically handicapped, training in ornamental horticulture skills can increase manual dexterity, build self-confidence, alleviate frustration, and perhaps offer hope of a meaningful career.
figure 18-2. A horticulture therapist uses plants to enrich the lives of these elderly citizens. (Courtesy Getty)
Some mentally challenged persons are trainable and employable; others have physical handicaps or limited coordination. Still, many possess the patience and desire to learn that are necessary to accomplish some of the craft skills of ornamental horticulture. Therapists use skill training as one means of developing a sense of self-worth and accomplishment in their clients.
Prisoners have also proved responsive to programs that allow them to work with the materials of nature while developing skills that offer hope of employment after their release. As a rehabilitation tool, ornamental horticulture training is proving its value, yet the number of programs nationally is limited due to a lack of instructors willing to work within the penal system.
While the clients of therapists can vary greatly, the education and personal qualities required of the therapist are similar. An increasing number of colleges are offering courses, even majors, in the use of horticulture as a tool of therapy. Training in the techniques of horticulture is combined with courses in the behavioral sciences, physical education, and the needs of special populations. Compassion, patience, and a call to human service are important personal characteristics of professionals in the field of horticulture therapy. Also necessary is the ability to remain objective toward the often tragic circumstances of the clients. Horticulture therapy is not a career that should be pursued by overly empathetic people, harsh though that advice may sound.