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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 16, 2002

A heritage of healing A heritage of healing (August 16, 2002)

C.A.R. garden therapeutic for the disabled

By Rachel Metz

Former high-tech worker Suzanne Redell likes to get down and dirty.

In the garden, that is.

At the Community Association for Rehabilitation (C.A.R.) on East Meadow Road in Palo Alto, hues of red, purple, orange green and blue pop from raised wooden planter beds that sit in a semicircle around a lush lawn. Behind the beds, a bamboo bean teepee crawls with fat green and purple beans as yellow jackets buzz ferociously around nearby flowers. There are bulbous orange pumpkins, slowly ripening under thick, leafy vines, and remnants of once-hearty sunflowers. A wide, sandy path allows visitors foot and wheelchair access to garden residents.

Along with a group of clients, aides and co-gardener Dina Gibbs, Redell tends the new Heritage Garden at C.A.R. With a combination of five raised beds -- each presenting a different garden theme -- assorted vegetables, four recently-planted trees and a pumpkin patch, garden plants are growing robustly and clients and volunteers are reaping benefits.

C.A.R. serves developmentally disabled people of all ages with eight different programs including the Infant Development Program, Creative Recreation Program (for ages 6-22) and L.E.A.R.N. (Learning Experiences for Adults with Real Needs). Currently, clients with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, mental retardation and autism in the Creative Recreation Program and L.E.A.R.N. water plants, pick vegetables and watch life cycles unfold in the planter beds.

"When we have this heat, as long as we water, everything bursts. And they see they're a part of that," Redell said.

In the "butterfly" bed, "herb" bed, "red-white-and-blue" bed, "sensory" bed and "international" bed, the Heritage Garden teems with animal and vegetable life. The decision to use raised beds in the garden, along with a broad garden path and lightweight gardening tools ensures people of all ages and abilities can perform all manner of life-sustaining activities.

The different types of beds let clients explore different colors, textures and tastes of plants and flowers. Gibbs said the physical activity gardening requires is not prohibitively intense but can certainly strengthen participants.

"We have some people in wheelchairs that can hardly move. They get more motion, more chance to actually do something...a lot of the people there have never done anything like this," Redell said.

One of the most gratifying events for Redell has been working with a female client who is prone to seizures. Redell said one day the girl was not planning to work in the garden because she'd just had a seizure, but 15 minutes later she arrived anyway and worked enthusiastically.

Garden plans moved toward fruition in March 2002 with help from the Junior League of Palo Alto Mid-Peninsula, Redell said, adding it took about a day to lay the basic groundwork. Now, clients take part in both the growth and harvesting aspects of garden care, picking flowers, herbs and vegetables. There are also butterfly larvae in the butterfly bed that C.A.R. marketing manager Wendy Kuehl expects will turn into butterflies within a week.

On Thursday afternoons Redell and Gibbs work with a regular group of about six children and eight adults watering, nurturing and fertilizing Echinacea, tomatoes, eggplants, chives, lettuce and asters, along with many other flowers and herbs. Some lessons are planned, with clients planting and tasting samples of various plants, while others are more free-form. Over the past several months Redell and Gibbs have taught clients to dig soil, weed beds, plant and water. "Some people come every day. There's some automatic watering but the pumpkins, beans and sunflowers need to be watered, especially in this heat, every day. I know the kids come over a lot. Everybody seems to love to water," Redell said.

Gibbs and Redell, both horticultural therapy students at Oakland's Merritt College, found themselves drawn to career horticulture after years spent gardening in their spare time. After growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, Gibbs met Redell in 2000 at a University of California at Santa Cruz extension seminar on healing gardens.

In early 2002, learning about the Heritage Garden from a San Jose Mercury News article, Redell shot off an e-mail to C.A.R. and she and Gibbs got started.

"They sort of gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted to do...I think we came at a very good time because they had this garden and they didn't know what to do with it," Gibbs said.

The garden is open to the public and Redell said C.A.R. staff members take breaks there and harvest some of the vegetables. She heard more local people have been stopping by to check out the garden's offerings.

Although Redell said C.A.R. has no blind clients right now ,she plans to insert Braille placards around the garden so visually impaired visitors can easily experience the site. Additionally, Gibbs would like to build another sensory garden so children in C.A.R.'s Infant Toddler Development Group can explore plant life.

"We'd love to keep this going as long as we can. But we'd love to at some point see if there's any grant money out there," Gibbs said.

Thus far, garden funds come from donations and supplies Gibbs and Redell have contributed.

In the fall, Heritage Garden workers will collect leaves and press them to make bookmarks and Redell and Gibbs said as the weather gets cooler the group will do garden-related indoor activities, such as flower arrangement and art classes.

Gibbs said, "We can start seeds again in spring. So it's definitely a cycle and here in California it's a short non-gardening time."

"The whole thing about this garden is the therapeutic affect it has on the clients and, actually, on the employees of C.A.R. and the therapists themselves. The garden kind of captures our clients imaginations and interests and they get really involved with it in a way you don't really see them involved on a day-to day basis," Kuehnl said.

E-mail Rachel Metz at


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