UF therapeutic horticulture program generates zen for students

Every spring, vehicles converge at the intersection of Mowry Road and Gale Lemerand Drive as green thumbs arrive for the annual Wilmot Botanical Gardens plant sale. Although they may not know it, much of the greenery they load into their vehicles is propagated by a select group of students for whom horticulture has become therapy.

Since 2012, the University of Florida College of Medicine’s Wilmot Botanical Gardens greenhouse on Mowry Road has served as a temporary sanctuary for people receiving treatment for movement disorders, like Parkinson’s, and for veterans struggling with bipolar disorder.

Activities like propagating and planting encourage participants to improve hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Elizabeth Diehl, lecturer in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ environmental horticulture department, manages the program. For years, Diehl has relied on student volunteers to assist with various tasks around the greenhouse and garden grounds.

therapeutic horticulture
UF student Veronica Wap pours colored rocks into a vase while making a bouquet April 4, 2024, as part of the Wilmot Botanical Gardens therapeutic horticulture program. Photo by Megan Winslow, UF/IFAS

“I would hear pretty regularly from those students, ‘This is my therapy.’ ‘I really like coming here,’ ‘It calms me down,’ ‘It makes me more excited about the week,’ ‘It makes me a little less stressed about my studies,’” Diehl said.

Comments like those inspired Diehl to launch a therapeutic horticulture program exclusively for students four years ago. She partners with the UF Counseling and Wellness Center to pair wellness strategies with gardening to alleviate anxiety, stress and even depression among students.

Once a week, a counselor teaches the students a wellness strategy, like mindfulness. Afterward, the students take part in a horticulture activity linked to that strategy.

“When students come to this program, they’re able to forget their troubles for a little bit, and they’re learning something that makes them feel good, builds their self-esteem,” Diehl said. “They take lots of plants home with them, and they’ve got them in their dorm rooms or in their apartments.”

Last year, UF president Ben Sasse selected Diehl’s program to receive $475,000 in strategic funding, recognizing its impact. The money will make it possible for four groups of 15 students per semester to participate during the next three years.

On a recent Thursday, UF psychologist Julie Abrams-Bernier led a meditation on self-compassion. She instructed students to imagine a flower garden in their hearts and to open their hearts to both people they know and to strangers. Afterward, the students gathered around tables and created bouquets with flowers, ferns and various greenery. These they placed within glass vases filled with colored rocks and water. Later, if they desired, the students could distribute the contents of their vases, piece by piece.

Intern Kai Tham taught the students how to fashion origami flowers attached to pipe cleaners.

“You can just stick it in the bouquet,” Tham said, holding up one of his creations. “This flower never dies.”

Student Veronica Wap began attending the sessions after a friend recommended the program.

“She said, ‘I feel like it’s super accessible, and therapy is really pricey,’” Wap said. “So this is just one avenue for me to relax and self-evaluate and do so in a really friendly environment.”


The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  |  @UF_IFAS


Megan Winslow
Posted: April 10, 2024

Category: Community Volunteers, Horticulture, Professional Development, UF/IFAS, Work & Life
Tags: Ben Sasse, Elizabeth Diehl, IFAS, Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences, Julie Abrams-Bernier, Kai Tham, Megan Winslow, Plant Sale, Strategic Funding, Therapeutic Horticulture, Therapy, UF, UF Counseling And Wellness Center, UF/IFAS, University Of Florida, University Of Florida College Of Medicine, University Of Florida Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences, Wilmot Botanical Gardens

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