November 4, 2021

Nurse’s vision blooms into therapeutic garden at VPH

Susan Crawford, RN-BC, created a therapeutic garden in the courtyard of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital to create a peaceful, natural space for patients.
Susan Crawford, RN-BC, created a therapeutic garden in the courtyard of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital to create a peaceful, natural space for patients. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Emily Stembridge

For many people the practice of gardening represents growth, rebirth and change. When Susan Crawford, RN-BC, a nurse in Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital’s (VPH) Intensive Outpatient Programs, realized that these same ideas are also important in the practice of behavioral therapy, she envisioned an initiative to combine the two practices.

Crawford’s initiative is now known by VPH providers, patients and their families as the therapeutic garden. Located in the courtyard of VPH, the garden is in an ideal location for soaking in outdoor time while waiting for treatment to begin, walking to and from appointments or simply for a break from the indoors.

In addition to unscheduled visits to the garden, clinicians like Crawford often host dedicated group therapy sessions there and designate time for patients to focus on gardening. Crawford says gardening is a peaceful activity for many patients who are students or have full-time jobs and spend all day inside.

“When Susan discussed the idea of the garden with us, it was exciting to be able to fully support the concept from its inception to its current reality. We see firsthand how it enriches our patients’ treatment experience and ultimately their lives in a transformational way,” said Mary Pawlikowski, President of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital.

Even patients who do not consider themselves plant savvy are involved in the garden, with alternative activities including painting decorative rocks and completing coloring sheets in the garden. Patients who are interested in gardening participate in pruning, weeding and planting with supplies provided by VPH. Some patients also bring their own pots and take plants back home with them to care for.

“It’s been really fun to watch the patients learn since a lot of them have never gardened before,” Crawford said. “They’re with us for about six weeks, so they get to see things sprout and grow and they let me know how their plants at home are doing.”

Crawford says one of the many benefits of the therapeutic garden initiative has been patients connecting with each other through gardening.

“It’s a wonderful environment to connect with each other and with nature — patients often work together to figure out what to do with different tools,” she said. “It’s really helped build a sense of community in the groups and helps them see that there’s something outside of themselves they can participate in.”

Since its inception the therapeutic garden has grown from just a few plant beds to several, fully lining the VPH courtyard. Crawford hopes to keep seeing it grow as current patients complete their therapy courses and new patients come in.

“When I think of gardening I think of transformation, changing of seasons and being cared for by something greater than us,” Crawford said. “There are so many amazing things we can learn about life and ourselves from gardening.”