A Walk Among the Green

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Up here in the northern hemisphere, we start our new year in the dead of winter; we head into the second half of the calendar school year with summer just a memory, the crispness of fall behind us, and spring feeling like a faraway dream. The avalanche of December holiday activity is followed by a month with no long weekends, when we shift back into routine and trudge ourselves to class, to work, and back home. In all of these seasons, be it summer or winter, in school or out, happy or sad, or somewhere in the middle, an important reality remains: getting outside has never been more vital to our overall health.

Bianca van der Stoel is a graduate of the Horticulture program at VIU. She told The Nav, “Before joining the program I was working as a Recreation Therapist, but I knew I needed more expertise in horticulture. I had the skills to facilitate quality therapy for people, but needed to learn the foundations of horticulture for optimal programming—like the basics of plant care, companion planting, and forest ecology. I decided to enroll in the online Horticulture Therapy course and the Horticulture Technician program to supplement my training.”

Horticulture therapy is a branch of therapy that facilitates a person’s exposure to nature to bring about overall health improvement. “I am drawn to the forest and I could stand beneath the Douglas Fir trees and the Western Red Cedars for hours,” van der Stoel said. “For others, it may be the edge of the ocean, or the middle of a prairie field, or the peak of a mountain. Regardless, horticulture and nature has the power to change us, and heal us.”

The majority of students spend most of their time sitting in a classroom, in the library, in a café, at home, or on their feet at work. A day spent reading, writing, memorizing, studying, and learning can be exhausting, even if you never change out of your pyjamas. Van der Stoel speaks to that exhaustion. “Students deserve a break,” she said. “Netflix and ice cream are great, but I believe it’s worth the extra bit of effort to find your way to one of the many incredible natural spots Vancouver Island has to offer. Some sort of healing or pleasure is waiting for you there.”

It’s truly incredible what a change in scenery can do for the mind and the body. Standing outside on the soaked earth after a fresh rainfall and trying to take ten deep breaths without getting distracted is challenging. Van der Stoel talked about how, in time, it gets easier to take those breaks and just appreciate what we can receive when we immerse ourselves in nature. Don’t just walk along the trail, stop and take note of trees that have grown taller since your last visit, listen for the birds and the bugs.

Alexandra Werk, another graduate of the Horticulture program, now works with the BC Conservation Foundation in habitat restoration. She fulfills her role as a horticulturist by focusing on habitat and native plant restoration which is vital to preserving and maintaining ecosystems. It’s people like Werk who keep our community, provincial, and national parks accessible and beautiful for all to enjoy and reap the benefits of.

“I enjoy working outside, it is very rewarding,” Werk said. “It’s all just about sharing horticulture knowledge. Through my job I am able to understand the importance of maintaining the natural biodiversity in our communities. Through the knowledge of understanding the science, I can now pursue my goal in educating my community.”

Van der Stoel loves showing people around the community parks around Nanaimo. “My job as a Horticulture Therapist and a Recreation Therapist is teaching people how to access natural places, or helping them discover which of these places would bring the most benefit. Then, nature does the rest. My goal is always to leave the individual in a better state than when I first joined them.”

Long Lake at sunset

The outdoors can be uninviting for some in the winter time, especially for those who have yet to acquire a liking for rain. “This one is tough, because the rain can suck,” van der Stoel admitted. “I will say though, the forest holds a different type of magic on a rainy day versus a sunny day. It smells different, the colours are different, the sounds are different. I would challenge you to layer up and get out there. I counter the sadness of the dark winter evenings or overcast days by still getting outside at some point, especially if there is a break in the rain I’ll go outside and soak up the smells and sounds for just five minutes and I feel the difference.” 

We all have days where we just can’t go out. We’re sick, transit is unreliable, laundry can take all day, we’re swamped with homework, it’s already dark, we’re caring for someone who can’t or doesn’t want to go outside. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) gets the best of us, especially in the gloomy winter days on Vancouver Island. 

“On those days, I slowly build up my indoor jungle,” van der Stoel said. “You’ve probably had a friend who’s been hooked by the plant obsession, but getting a plant, or two, or twenty is actually so easy. Plants are often on sale for dirt cheap at stores like Rona or Walmart, and almost anything can be used as a pot.” Her eyes light up as she lists the random pot-like items she’s used or has seen used for plants. “Art Knapp and Greenthumb Nurseries are in the north end, close to bus routes, and offer a much wider selection of plants. Go to the tropicals section if you’re looking for plants that want to live in your warm house.”

Van der Stoel spoke about how often injury or illness prevent people from accessing nature, which leaves a gap in their healthcare. “There are so many people who have spent their lives loving nature, or gardening, or forests, or even something like stargazing, and then it’s taken away from them. As I learned more about horticulture related therapies, I realized that as our healthcare system evolves, horticulture therapy needs to be a part of the evolution.” For those who can’t get outdoors easily or spontaneously, it’s even more important to bring the outside in. 

Another type of therapy gaining traction on Vancouver Island is forest bathing, also known as forest grounding. Forest bathing is the practice of placing your bare feet on the ground or your hands on the trunk of a tree. Van der Stoel smiled and closed her eyes before continuing. “For myself, I can’t entirely put words to the peace and sense of escape I find in nature. I can slow my thinking, I can contemplate new ideas, I can stretch my body and get my blood flowing, or I can simply participate in beauty and satiate my senses.”

Van der Stoel works mostly in seniors’ homes where she facilitates horticulture programs for the Elders there. “Elders is the term I use for an older adult or elderly person. I work with Elders who have memory impairment, usually Dementia or Alzheimer’s. I’ve heard comments like ‘that’s what we’re missing around here, more of the outside’ or ‘you’ve brought the outside in to us.’” While her focus is on the elderly and often she brings nature inside the home for them, getting outside is important no matter one’s age.

She explains in some detail about the process of therapy with the Elders she works with. “Say a woman named Mabel has been isolated in her room for days. As a past gardener, she agrees to come see the garden, even though she refuses most recreation programming. Once she arrives, hopefully she immediately experiences feelings of pleasure due to the sunshine, sensory prompts, flowers, and sounds of nature. Then, perhaps she remembers her past garden, or a plant that she also grew at home. She may point that plant out, naming the plant or even just the colour, which then ties to a cognitive benefit. If she shares this with the Elder sitting next to her, that may begin an easy conversation pointing out plants they grew. This ties to social goals and benefits. Mabel might want to pick some of the familiar flowers or herbs, practicing physical benefits of reach and gross motor movement. Then she smells the herbs which engages her olfactory senses, improving her physical breathing patterns, and triggering a familiar memory of the herb from her past, once again tying in cognitive and emotional benefits.” 

No one outgrows the need for nature, and van der Stoel speaks to the endless benefits that she has experienced herself and has seen others experience. They go beyond her goals of sensory stimulation, reminiscence, socialization, and physical health to bring joy, inspiration, laughter, and motivation. 

“In nature, I’m reminded that I am a part of a larger ecosystem—not one that I am superior or indifferent to, but one I must protect and cherish. My intrinsic desire to protect our environment improves as I appreciate nature more and more, and that awareness and appreciation can start through such simple steps—like a walk to the nearest grove of trees. Some days I seek rest, some days I reinspire creativity, some days I take time to connect to something that feels more grand than me, and many times, I find I can release things in nature—whether that is control, or stress, or uncertainty.” 

PLANT TIPS

Van der Stoel suggests using pots that have drainage to avoid root rot, which occurs when water accumulates in a pot and has nowhere to go. It is the number one killer of houseplants. She also suggests the following plants that work well in low-light (i.e. a basement suite, dark corner, washroom, the places where plants usually go to die):

  • African Violets
  • Air Plant
  • Asparagus Fern
  • Money Tree
  • Pilea
  • Prayer Plant
  • Pepperomia
  • Snake Plant
  • Spider Plant