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As HGTV-UT Gardens education director, Derrick Stowell creates fun and learning-focused experiences enjoyed by East Tennesseans of all ages. As a registered horticultural therapist—one of three in the state—he tailors garden and gardening experiences for youth and adults with special needs, as well as the elderly, among others, for whom gardening offers benefits.

How do the therapy programs offered by the UT Gardens, Knoxville, assist people?

There are so many ways. For people who have disabilities, participating in gardening experiences can prepare them for vocational employment, not only in horticulture, but in general fields because they’re learning important skills such as showing up on time, listening and following instructions, and following through.

Do the programs all occur on campus?

While we encourage participants to come to the Gardens, I also visit people in assisted-living facilities. At these, we may discuss vegetables and how to plant them. Then, I’ll ask about their earliest memories of gardening, and that can take them back to happy times with parents or grandparents in home gardens and on the farm. At one center, a staff member told me the gardening sessions are the only activity a patient with dementia leaves her room for. At another, there’s a woman who sits on a bench outside waiting for us to arrive. The impacts I see are incredible. Our on-campus sessions include students from the Tennessee School for the Deaf and organizations of youth with intellectual impairments or physical disabilities, many of whom schedule sessions every week. Cherokee Health brings patients from Morristown and Newport once a month.

What are some of the challenges you encounter?

It’s not just intellectual impairments we work with. Sometimes, they’re physical. One participant was in an electric wheelchair. I told her I wanted her to plant in the raised beds we had. But even the raised beds were not high enough for her needs, so we improvised a tool that extended her reach. I also saw the difficulties she experienced rolling along gravel paths in areas where rains wash them out. Stabilizing these areas is a need for us, to better serve all visitors. I told her I was learning more than she was. People who are dealing with disabilities or challenges need to know there are resources for them, including adaptive tools to assist in gardening. And that includes everyone. As we age, we may find it more difficult to perform tasks, and some of us may experience an injury that hinders our work outside. Therapists serve those needs, as well, and we can make recommendations to address them.

How is the demand for the Gardens’ therapy programs?

It definitely outpaces our ability to serve. Part of the challenge is that funding for these programs depends on funding from each organization as programs like ours are not covered under health insurance. With more funding ourselves, I know we could keep a staff of three to four therapists engaged full-time in meeting the number of individuals and groups who would like our assistance.

This seems like a fairly new field. Is it?

Actually, it’s quite old. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a physician. Rush studied mental disorders, among other health issues, and noticed that patients who spent time digging in the “dirt” exhibited less mania and problems, and he wrote about this. Today Rush is regarded as one of the founders of American psychiatry.

How do people specialize in this area?

Recreational therapists, physical therapists, nurses, and others all are among the members of the American Horticultural Therapy Association (ahta.org). These people have seen the benefits of horticulture as therapy and want to know more. I entered the field through a path that linked my areas of study, which were in environmental studies and outdoor recreation and therapeutic recreation. When I learned about horticulture therapy, it seemed perfect for me, so I took the classes necessary to become registered and also had a supervised internship.

Your work benefits others. In what ways do you benefit?

Being able to work with individuals gives me a sense of joy and seeing the progress that they make is really amazing. 


Derrick Stowell welcomes your questions about horticultural therapy. Reach him at dstowell@tennessee.edu. If you are interested in supporting Derrick’s work, please visit Advance UTIA at tiny.utk.edu/ag/Advance-UTGardens​.