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A group of elementary-school-aged children are led out of their south Tel Aviv afternoon day care center and into an adjoining empty lot. The neighborhood is poor, the surrounding apartment buildings rundown, and the children's clothes are frayed and worn.
After a few seconds of shuffling around the vacant lot, each child comes to a stop in a different place, squats down and peers intently at a small spot on the ground. A dark-haired boy, about eight years old, lets out a yell that startles the group's counselor - this child is normally silent, seriously withdrawn child. The boy points excitedly at three tiny green buds barely visible at the surface of the ash-gray soil. The group had planted vegetables here back when the ground was still hard and cold; the carrot seeds sowed by the painfully shy dark-haired boy are the first to sprout and begin poking their way through the soil.
The counselor asks the boy how it feels to have his carrots take root. The boy does not speak, but his ear-to-ear grin says it all.
Issachar Dror, program director of the Jaffa Institute, had an unusual idea. Working for more than 20 years in the slum neighborhoods of Jaffa, south Tel Aviv and Bat Yam with some of Israel's most disadvantaged children, he's seen it all. Kids on drugs, prone to violence, in trouble with the police. But if he has anything to say about it, he will continue to see the kids the way he is seeing them now, in a small grassy lot, holding rakes and spades, hard at work, gardening.
In Israel and throughout the world, gardening has become more than simply growing flowers or vegetables, it has evolved into an innovative form of therapy, known as "hortitherapy," or therapeutic gardening.
Similar to therapeutic horseback riding - used to treat illness, trauma and cognitive, emotional and behavioral disorders, improve balance, strength, coordination and muscle development, as well as emotional discipline and self-esteem - gardening is being shown to have positive physical, emotional and behavioral effects. Stated simply, people relate to plants.
Gardening - as every devotee knows - provides an individual with almost irresistible stimuli, regardless of his or her physical, cognitive or emotional limitations. Even for the sick or disabled, a garden can provide the counterpoint of order and self-empowerment against the feelings of helplessness and loss of control that often accompany serious illness. For a group, gardening provides a clear and present focus for sociability and cooperation, project planning and implementation, along with productive interaction and the sharing of responsibilities.
The benefits of gardening begin with the participant's first encounter with nature and the natural environment, sunlight and fresh air, all of which calm, soothe and relax. The act of planning a garden - deciding what to plant and where to plant it - both stimulates the gardener's imagination and develops his or her organizational skills. Planting the garden entails a form of physical exercise that not only strengthens and tones muscles, but also promotes better hand-eye coordination, motor skills and body flexibility.
Caring for plants as they grow promotes nurturing skills, while the very act of waiting for plants to grow develops patience. This is particularly important for today's children, who often need to be weaned away from expectations of instant gratification and immediate rewards. Tending to the garden's appearance promotes creativity and develops the participant's esthetic sense. And when conducted by a group, gardening inspires teamwork and cooperation while strengthening and broadening each member's network of social relationships.
Many practitioners see it as something new and cutting-edge, hortitherapy actually has deep historical roots. Landscape gardening and flower arranging in ancient China and early Japan were developed not only as artistic expression but also as form of meditation. In Medieval Europe, hospices integral to monasteries provided the first known restorative gardens in the West: Patients' cells opened onto arcaded courtyards that offered sunlit lawns with plants, flowers, trees and hedges, along with places to sit or walk.
Later on, "pavilion hospitals," in which the buildings were separated by landscaped outdoor spaces, became the predominant form of hospital construction in 18th and 19th century Europe. As psychiatric treatment gradually changed from physical punishment to psychological rehabilitation in the 19th century, landscaped views were designed to provide patients with greater comfort and security. The grounds' maintenance, including flower and vegetable gardening, was made part of the patients' treatment. With the development of occupational therapy at the beginning of the 20th century, therapeutic gardening was expanded to include people with physical disabilities. Therapeutic gardening was developed further after World War II, as specially designed gardens were used for the treatment of disabled veterans.
Today, after several decades in which hospitals have been built as large, fully-enclosed air-conditioned buildings almost completely cut off from the surrounding landscape, therapeutic gardening is back - in schools, community centers, day care centers and old age homes.
Therapeutic gardening is beginning to take root in Israel, conducted mostly by non-profit charitable organizations. Shomera, an environmentally-oriented group headquartered in Jerusalem, was among the first non-profits to launch such a program in Israel.
"We started doing horticultural therapy a year after we began operating in 1998 - before we even knew to call it 'horticultural therapy,'" recalls Ohad Greiner, Somera's executive director. After an initial effort to assist residents of the capital's Har Nof neighborhood who were trying to save the Jerusalem Forest from developers - which included an environmental awareness campaign - other neighborhoods asked Shomera for programs as well.
When a community center in Givat Shaul requested a program for blind children, Shomera sent a few of their staff to help the children make a garden. Another call from a group in Har Nof resulted in a gardening program for Haredi youth with drug problems. Other programs followed. "Elsewhere in the world, these programs were run by social workers trained to do some gardening. Our approach right from the beginning was to find accomplished gardeners and train them to be like social workers. Better, more professional gardening provides more varied therapy options," explains Greiner.
Today, among its other efforts, Shomera runs 10 therapeutic gardening programs tailored to a wide variety of special-needs groups such as handicapped adults and children with learning disabilities.
Other organizations offer hortitherapy to specific categories of clients, such as Shilo in Haifa, providing therapeutic gardening to the elderly and Ashalim, offering both pet and garden therapy throughout Israel to fathers of at-risk children.
With its growing numbers of enthusiastic "true believers" both in Israel and abroad, along with the thousands of people it has already helped, therapeutic gardening is likely to join therapeutic horseback riding as a significant approach to healing and wellbeing in the years ahead.
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