Allspice and heirloom roses scent the garden where Robert Bornstein starts his work day at his home, tending plants meant not for show but for healing.
"We have 35 years of scientific documentation to tell us we were meant to be with nature,” says Bornstein, potting an Everglades tomato that his seniors with limited mobility can grow indoors. “I need at least ten minutes in the garden or I’m no good.”
Bornstein’s work, called horticultural therapy, uses gardens and gardening activities to improve memory,, physical coordination, rehabilitation and social skills. According to Elizabeth Diehl, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, a growing body of research shows horticulture therapy’s benefits among older populations.
“Having access to natural spaces reduces violent behavior in Alzheimer’s patients,” Diehl says.
As hospitals and treatment centers become aware of the benefits, they are adding horticultural activities to their recreational therapy programs. Bornstein, who began his career working with patients who had been declared criminally insane, now has a busy practice serving 40 senior residence facilities across South Florida and charges roughly $90 an hour for his services.
Ten minutes slip to thirty.
“I’m late!” he realizes, and jumping into his Prius, guns it to Deerfield Beach.
"You see, ladies? He’s always running," Geraldine Markiewicz, a retired first-grade teacher, tells fellow Horizon Club residents as the therapist races into the assisted living facility bearing bags of materials for a flower arranging hour. Fifteen residents range around the common area, some in wheelchairs. Bornstein passes around thimble-sized plastic containers that look like champagne glasses, followed by sprigs of eucalyptus, cattails and dried flowers. Each person selects an element, decides its arrangement, and attaches it to a thumbnail of floral foam with all the hand-eye coordination he or she can muster.
Neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis and the shaking hands of Parkinson’s disease can make such fine movements difficult. Yet as the arrangements take shape, no bigger than a salt shaker, they look as fine as if a caterer had created them for a wedding table.
Activities Assistant Gwenda Rodriguez stands by as a resident who can barely move wills her hands to place a purple flower in the cup. The woman’s face beams. She has made the most elegant arrangement of all.
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Elena Naranjo used to be an assistant director at a mental health center, dealing with continual crisis management. Then she got a license in permaculture, the design of holistic living spaces based on sustainable agriculture. “I think there’s a very healing application working with nature. It’s where I wanted to end up,” Naranjo says.
Now she, a small staff, and the homeless and formerly homeless families of Verde Gardens, a 145-unit affordable housing community of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and Carrfour Supportive Housing, are reaping their first full harvest on the Farm at Verde Gardens.
Modeled on the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, Calif., the 22-acre farm on former Homestead Air Reserve Base land offers skills and business opportunities to community members like Xavier Wright, as well as fresh food
“I’m an outdoor person. My grandparents grew cotton and peaches,” says 25-year-old Wright who arrived at the Chapman Partnership homeless shelter a single father with full custody of his autistic son. “I love this,” he says, setting pigeon pea seedlings in the soil.
Leading the way past circular demonstration beds of swiss chard ringed with marigolds and leeks to retard pests, Naranjo parts a screen of giant taro leaves, revealing a garden like a scene from a children’s book.
“My favorite spot. It’s where the polycultures are planted."
A thin trail winds among banana and papaya trees, taro, sweet potato and beans; plants grown together for mutual benefit, one of the essential ideas behind permaculture and the farm. Like the plants, people thrive, too.
Glory Otano, who studied culinary arts through a program of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, has a new career in the farm’s kitchen making food look and taste beautiful. She talks excitedly about the menu she’s creating for the farm’s next venture: an organic cafe. The shelves of colorful preserves give her the same experience of accomplishment as the flower arrangements give Bornstein’s seniors.
At the Samuel D. Goldstein Lauderdale Lakes Alzheimer Care Center, the large outdoor patio is arranged with folding chairs where locals in varying stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia await Bornstein’s arrival. Some stare at the floor. One woman is sleeping. But they soon come alive as Bornstein reconnects them to the strip of land they have planted together, bursting with avocado, mint, callaloo and other species native to the Caribbean from whence many of them came.
A woman in an aggressive stage of her disease waters a pomegranate tree.
Lucian Gseow, a Jamaican of Chinese descent, works the soil with confident hands. "I used to farm. I owned many acres in St. Ann parish. and sold tomato crops at market with six women working for me,” he says.
A resident of Little Haiti, Clara Bre Soir moves her walker close enough to help Bornstein plant Thai basil. The herb’s aroma triggers powerful memories. She speaks of the Bacardi rum cakes she sometimes still bakes. Basil is one of the ingredients.
Seemingly from nowhere, a memory comes to Lauderdale Lakes resident Dorothy Dillard, who grew up on a North Carolina tobacco farm, of moving to Florida in the 1960s. “It was kind of prejudiced, but it’s better now.”
Her eyes are fixed on Bornstein.
"He’s a nice, nice person. He’s sincere."
Facility manager Shirley Beckford appears with trays of sandwiches for an afternoon snack. Bornstein advises her and other clients who use his services: “Call it a green thumb club, call it a garden club, but don’t call it horticulture therapy."
But his participants know better. As their hour together comes to an end, one of them says, “Robert, this is about much more than plants, isn’t it.”