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Club breathes new life into garden therapy program

Mary Louise Herek pours soil into a mug during a garden therapy session, sponsored by the Des Plaines Garden Club. (Jennifer Delgado/Tribune)

Mary Louise Herek pours soil into a mug during a garden therapy session, sponsored by the Des Plaines Garden Club. (Jennifer Delgado/Tribune)

Elsie Palm, 91, felt a rush of relaxation and happiness as she poured dirt around a green and pink leafy plant while sitting at a table inside her retirement community.

Somehow, planting the small white fittonia in a mug decorated with red hearts evoked memories of Palm’s mother tending to the flowers, carrots and apples in the family’s backyard. Then, digging and sowing seeds wasn’t too appealing to the Chicago native, but now her feelings have changed.

“I thought I would never like this, but it’s fun,” said Palm, a resident of Oakton Arms in Des Plaines. “I can’t wait to take care of it and then give it to my daughter.”

(PHOTOS: Garden therapy at Oakton Arms.)

As part of a rejuvenated garden therapy program, Des Plaines Garden Club members have begun traveling to senior living facilities across the city to bring their passion to others in need of a smile, spiritual lift or distraction.

They say the gardening process is a healing, therapeutic experience and experts agree. Benefits range from increased physical activity to socialization to learning to follow and expand on directions, which may prove difficult especially after a stroke, heart attack and depression.

Caring for a plant is also an empowering feeling and makes people feel strength, abundance and richness, said Barbara Kreski, director of Horticultural Therapy Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The therapy program offers on and offsite services, including the Buehler Enabling Garden.

Growing up with kitchen and backyard gardens were the norm for today’s seniors, so planting comes very naturally, she added.

“Older memories tend to be preserved and sometimes they can engage with the planting process almost on automatic pilot,” Kreski said.

Even though the gardening at the Des Plaines senior facilities happens on a smaller scale and is indoors, it allows people living in a closed environment to get their hands dirty and take home small, potted plants to give away or keep, said member Joy Bertone.

“It puts a smile on their face and gives them something to care for,” she said. “It’s an immediate reward.”

The club also hopes to expand to other Des Plaines senior institutions for future visits.

At a recent outing, a handful of garden club members helped about eight Oakton Arms residents place White fittonias in colorful mugs. The seniors, who sat around a table, scooped dirt from buckets while club members explained the leafy plants prefer moist soil and grow in high humidity. Most of the materials were donated by Pesche’s Flowers.

“A lot of them love gardening,” remarked Jane Chiok, the center’s activity director. “That’s something very personal for them.”

The event was a treat for Dolores Busse – a member of the Des Plaines Garden Club since 1990, who hasn’t been able to attend recent meetings because she’s had difficulty walking.

As she looked at her plant, the Des Plaines resident recalled the colorful perennials that decorated her home inside and out.

“I’ve been a gardener all my life,” the 85-year-old said. “I was telling everybody to come to this because you can learn something. It’s such a nice program.”

Participant Mary Louise Herek already cares for two geraniums and was excited to add the fittonia to the mix. She especially loves the colors and fragrance of flowers and plants because they perk up her room, she said.

“It’s just cheerful looking and it’s something living in my room – besides me, of course,” Herek said with a laugh. “It’s a quiet decoration, too.”

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