The Use of Horticulture in Vocational Rehabilitation

Diane Relf

Originally published in J. Rehab. 47(3):53-56.
ABSTRACT. Horticulture is becoming an increasingly important tool in vocational rehabilitation of handicapped individuals. Specific issues should be addressed before a horticultural training program is started. The rationale for using horticulture as a training medium and the objectives of the program should be identified. The potential benefits to be derived from the program may be in terms of changes in self-concept, social interaction, physical abilities, academic skill development and improved work habits.
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The Use of Horticulture in Vocational Rehabilitation

Diane Relf

The horticultural activities used in the program must be appropriate to the needs and activities of the client. If it is to be semi self-supporting, it must be appropriate to the needs of the community. Issues of location, staffing, and funding must be addressed. Exchange of information in this area takes place through the National Council of Therapy and Rehabilitation through Horticulture.
Horticulture is becoming a significant tool in the rehabilitation of handicapped individuals. One area that is receiving particular attention is the use of horticulture in pre-vocational and vocational training programs. Horticulture encompasses all aspects of the intensive cultivation of plants in a relatively limited space. This includes greenhouse culture, vegetable gardening, tree and shrub maintenance, and indoor gardening. When a program is vocational in nature, it includes the commercial elements of plant production, sales and service.
The vocational and pre-vocational program may be centered exclusively around horticultural activities. However, the horticultural component is often added as another effective training tool in existing programs along with such training as janitorial services or industrial contracting work.
The acceptance of horticulture as an alternative training area brought with it certain problems inherent in any newly developing field. One challenging problem for the new advocate is the depth of information on the subject. Most available material describes successful horticultural training programs but fails to give specific information. Evaluation and programming material is particularly lacking. Also missing are guidelines to starting a horticultural training program. Specific issues should be understood and sound planning completed before a program director is ready to ask, "Which plants shall we grow?"


Assuming there are handicapped individuals in the community who will use and benefit from a vocational program, the question ultimately arises "Why use horticulture as the training medium?" The majority of programs using horticulture have as their basis one of the following hypotheses: (a) the existence of job opportunities for the handicapped individuals within the horticultural industry, (b) the need for horticultural products or services in the community which could be provided by the program, or (c) the therapeutic benefits of horticulture in a program.


The reason for selecting horticulture as the training medium influences the philosophy to which a program adheres and can affect its objectives and operations. If the program is to be based on the idea of training handicapped individuals for horticultural jobs in the community, it must first be determined that the horticultural industry within a reasonable geographic area is sufficiently large to absorb the graduates from the program. The needs of industry for employees in horticulture must be determined. This would include an understanding of the type of employee desired (seasonal, full-time, part-time) and the attitude toward hiring handicapped individuals. There is an opportunity for employment as the horticultural industry does utilize semi-skilled or unskilled labor. However, to date, there has not been a concerted effort to educate the horticultural and agricultural industry toward hiring the handicapped.
This should be an area of combined interest of the Society of American Florists, the American Association of Nurserymen, the National Council of Therapy and Rehabilitation through Horticulture, and the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. If it is determined that the job market actually exists within a geographical area that is accessible to the clients, efforts to educate employers can be initiated where needed.
There are many areas where job demand will not be large enough within the horticultural industry to justify skill training for clients who cannot be expected to move independently to other localities seeking employment. Two alternatives offer themselves. One is the establishment of group homes or other living facilities in proximity to the horticultural jobs. Thus, semi-independent living will be achieved along with employment.
Secondly, if the community can support a full horticultural business, a commercial enterprise could be started to hire clients who have graduated from the training program. Both of the alternatives offer only partial solutions as the number of graduates which could thus be accommodated is limited.
If the goal of the program is to be a semi self-supporting training program and/or provide sheltered employment to their clients, it is important that a complete survey of the horticultural needs of the community be made in order to select the most appropriate business. At the same time that such a study is conducted, liaisons should be made with members of the horticultural industry. They are a valuable resource if they recognize that the intent is to work with and compliment them, not compete against them.
In areas where there are not sufficient opportunities in commercial horticulture to anticipate placement of a large percent of the graduates, the therapeutic benefits of using horticulture as the basis for the training program, must be understood. An intrinsic part of horticulture is the art of living, of caring, and of growing. These are factors which are too often missing in the lives of handicapped individuals. Rarely are they given the opportunity to bring about life, to nurture it to maturity and to be praised for this achievement. Whether a new life is initiated through a seed, a cutting, or a sprig of turf, it provides responsibilities that can be met by handicapped persons.

Potential Benefits

Research data has not been collected to substantiate the theorized benefits that clients receive from participation in a horticulture therapy program. However, observations from professionals in the field indicate a number of benefits can be derived by specific individuals. These potential benefits will be discussed individually.
Self-worth. Very often handicapped individuals in a vocational training program have experienced repeated failures or rejections because of their handicap and have a very low self-esteem. However, given the proper care, plants will respond positively for anyone regardless of physical or mental limitations. A skillful selection of plants to be grown can insure a degree of success and accomplishment. The ensuing pride and sense of responsibility can lead to improved self-concept and increased sense of worth.
Increased self-mastery. Opportunities present themselves to relieve the negative emotions of anger and aggression in a socially acceptable way such as pulling out and discarding old plants from a flower bed or pinching plants back to increase bushy, compact growth. Through these activities, the client may learn appropriate methods of dealing with love-hate conflicts within himself and develop better methods of self-control.
Physical involvement. Horticulture is not a sedentary activity. To practice it vocationally, one must have a degree of mobility. As the handicapped individual's abilities permit, the degree of strenuous activities can be increased from sitting down transplanting cuttings to mowing lawns and planting trees. The majority of the time is spent in action, moving plants, watering, pulling weeds, and similar activities. This constant use of the body presents many opportunities to improve muscle coordination, train unused muscles, develop muscle strength, increase balance and decrease weight.
Interaction with peers. Workshop or training centers frequently serve as socialization, information and recreation centers for the handicapped individuals who have limited access to the community. In addition to the socialization process which occurs during non-work time such as coffee breaks and lunch, the activities of a horticultural program lend themselves well to interpersonal relationships in a work or goal-directed setting. Work activities can be divided into those to be accomplished by (a) crews working together as a unit toward a common goal, (b) crew members working independently within the unit on a realistically competitive basis, and (c) individuals working alone or side-by-side on separate tasks.
Interaction with public. As the public comes to the center to buy plants or grounds maintenance crews go out to the community to care for landscaped areas, the handicapped have repeated opportunities to confront the public in a situation which is productive to their self-image. They are presenting services valued by the public for which they are being paid. The actual contact and recognition is a significant contribution to the entire program.
Mastery of academic areas. Within the real work setting of the horticultural business, the handicapped person is highly motivated to learn many basic academic skills. From counting the number of plants on a bench to using measuring cups to mix fertilizer, basic mathematical skills are an integral part of horticultural activities. Making change at a community sale reinforces money-handling skills that have been taught in individual training sessions. Learning new terms and new concepts about plant growth leads to improved vocabulary and communication skills.
Development of work habits. In addition to establishing an atmosphere in which the client develops physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, horticulture provides an effective medium in which to help the client develop work attitudes and abilities which will be of assistance in becoming an effective employee in any work situation. Basic concepts such as getting to work on time, wearing appropriate clothes, and working specific lengths of time are integral to the "real work" setting of such programs.
Horticultural skill development. The acquisition of such horticultural skills as plant propagation, transplanting and soil mixing is an essential element in the total training program and greatly expands the abilities of the handicapped individual. Each activity is broken down into single actions which can be learned individually, then combined into a process as the client increases in skills.
An illustration of the potential benefits to be had in horticultural training can be given by analyzing a single activity closely. An example of this individual step-by-step approach would be the repotting of a plant from a four to a six-inch pot. The components of this activity can be identified as:
1. Moving plants from the bench into a flat.
2. Carrying the flat of plants to the potting table level in a way to prevent damage.
3. Selecting the correct sized pot for repotting.
4. Preparing the pot by placing a drainage cover over the bottom hole and adding the proper amount of soil.
5. Removing the plant from the four-inch pot by inserting fingers around stem and hand over soil, inverting pot and tapping gently on work table to dislodge the root ball.
6. Centering the plant in the six-inch pot.
7. Placing adequate soil uniformly around the roots and firming gently.
8. Placing newly transplanted plant into flat to be returned to greenhouse.
9. Repeating steps (3) through (8) until the flat is full but not overcrowded (must recognize that as many six-inch pots will not fit in flat as four-inch pots).
10. Carrying flat of repotted plants to greenhouse without damaging them.
11. Spacing them appropriately on the bench.
12. Watering correctly.
Many of the steps given here can be broken down into still more units for the more severely retarded client.
Immediately evident from this task development are intellectual and physical benefits. Intellectual skills include identifying the correct plant to be transplanted, selecting the correct sized pot, determining the number of plants that will fit into the flat. Perceptual skills include centering the plant in the six-inch pot and spacing it on the bench. Motor skills include carrying the flats in the proper position to avoid damage to the plants and placing the soil into the pots. The achievement of each activity in the process carries with it a degree of personal satisfaction that helps mold the handicapped individual's new image of self-worth.

Program Participants

A realistic appraisal of the number and types of clients to be served by the program is essential in order to determine the size and nature of the horticultural operation and the overall goals of the program. For example, although Ashley (1968) reports that persons in wheelchairs can handle many of the jobs in a greenhouse, job placement in a commercial greenhouse is not a realistic goal for such individuals. The modification necessary to the benches and aisle width would eliminate so much plant production space that most commercial greenhouses could not be run economically.
On the other hand, Hefley (1973) documents a case of a blind individual operating his own greenhouse business. Modifications are necessary but not so extensive as to be prohibitive commercially.

Horticultural Businesses

Horticultural businesses can be divided roughly into two areas: (1) product-based businesses and (2) service-based businesses. Product-based businesses have an end product which must be sold to a customer. These include greenhouse operations, nurseries, florists, fruit and vegetable production and very small or limited activities such as herbs or specialized plants. The products may be sold on either a wholesale or retail basis. The diversity of crops which can be grown in each of these business areas is enormous. The initial investment in most of these businesses can be very large as it may require a greenhouse, storage, and other buildings, large equipment and extensive plant materials and supplies.
A feasibility study giving initial capital investment and annual cost factors along with projected return will be an invaluable tool in program selection and development. In programs where horticulture is to be an additional training area in an existing facility, "spin-off" products related to current programs should be identified; for example, pottery from the ceramic program, or hanging planters from the wood-working program.
Service-based business areas include grounds maintenance, clean-up crews and landscape installation. This has been an area of high success both in terms of training, job placement, and financial return of investment. Working in public and industrial settings has proven to be far more productive than working for the homeowner. Horticultural training programs have received contracts to maintain the grounds of county libraries, nursing homes, government buildings, recreational areas, and various industrial parks. Mowing, edging, and pruning are the three work skills most often used. Hansen (1967) reports programs for severely retarded young men have been successful in contracting to clean up roadways and parks.
Another service area that has provided seasonal training and employment is fruit and vegetable harvesting according to Cowden (1969) and Stolen (1969).

Program Location

Although this is often pre-determined by other factors, there are several considerations which will help make the program more successful. Among these are:
1. Accessibility both to clients and to potential customers. Proximity to major roads greatly enhances retail sales.
2. Cost. It is sometimes possible for non-profit agencies to receive government surplus land at no cost. Donations by families of handicapped persons is also a source of land.
3. Potential use. This site should lend itself to expansion of the initial program.
One very important consideration is ownership of the land on which the program is to develop. Horticulture businesses are long-term operations which do not lend themselves well to being moved. It will be much easier to get funding to build a greenhouse or start a nursery on land owned by the organization running the program.

Obtaining Help

Questions of staffing and financing are of major concern to developing programs. Until recent years there has been a continuous debate over whether it was more important to hire horticulturists to grow the plants and teach them to work with handicapped people or hire a trained rehabilitation staff and teach them to grow plants. Today, several major universities either have, or are planning, degrees in Horticultural Therapy. These include:
1. Clemson University
Department of Horticulture
Clemson, SC 29631
Contact: Dr. Alta Kingman
2. Kansas State University
Department of Horticulture
Manhattan, KS 66502
Contact: Dr. Richard Mattson
3. Texas Tech University
Department of Horticulture
Lubbock, TX 74909
Contact: Dr. George Tereshkovich
4. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Department of Horticulture
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Contact: Dr. Diane Relf
Graduates from these programs have competencies in plant production and in working with people. Their training includes a period of practical experience in the field. The nature of their preparation makes them well suited to work in these new vocational training programs.
Funding for the development of such programs comes from both private and public sources with state and federal monies being the primary resource. After the program is established, self-earned monies may account for 50% or more of the total budget depending on the program objectives and operation.
In order to help new and developing programs and to exchange information among established ones, a professional organization, The National Council for Therapy and Rehabilitation through Horticulture (Mt. Vernon, VA 22121), was formed in 1973. Today there are over 800 individuals and institutions belonging to this organization. The Council provides such services as a monthly newsletter, state and regional conferences, registration of professionals, and clearing house of information on Horticultural Therapy.


Horticulture is being utilized effectively in a number of vocational training programs for handicapped clients. However, for a program to be successful, it is important that specific issues be addressed and sound planning take place. The reason for selecting horticulture as the training medium influences the philosophy to which a program adheres and can affect its objectives and operation. The needs and abilities of the clients determine the type of horticultural activities involved.
In commercial operations the needs of the community also influence the horticultural activities selected. Location, staffing and funding are critical issues to be faced. However, some mutual assistance is available through the conferences and publications of the National Council for Therapy and Rehabilitation through Horticulture.


Ashley, I.E. Analysis of opportunities for paraplegics in certain ornamental horticulture occupations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Illinois, 1968.
Cowden, K. The mentally retarded can contribute. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 1969, 20(12),395.
Hansen, C. E. The work crew approach to job placement for severely retarded. Journal of Rehabilitation, 1967, 35(3), 26-27.
Hefley, P. D. Planting new seeds. Performance, 1973, 23(8), 8-10.
Stolen, S. Retarded men work at harvest. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 1969, 20(12), 384.