/ Modified feb 6, 2013 10:30 a.m.

Garden-Based Therapy Takes Root in Tucson

Behavioral health, substance abuse treatment facilities turn to horticulture for healing

People come to Thornydale Ranch to find peace.

Since 2003, the former working ranch has been a temporary home for people living with mental health and substance abuse disorders who are rebuilding their lives.

They stay for up to six months and spend their days learning independent living skills and tending to the horses and livestock that rely on them here.

But now they’ve found a new way to heal—one that requires a little digging beneath the surface.

“When I started here there was no garden,” recalls George Storm, a recovery support specialist and team lead for Thornydale Ranch. “And then some of the residents here said, ‘Can we have a garden?’”

Storm and Thornydale’s residents began their garden on a Sunday afternoon, with few plants, materials or expectations. But it has since grown into a landmark.

The garden is 73 feet long, 23 feet wide, and an occasional source of wonder.

“Most people are amazed by it when they see it in bloom,” Storm says.

La Frontera, the Tucson-based nonprofit behavioral health agency that owns and operates Thornydale Ranch, has since developed two other gardens for its clients.

Along with a growing number of care providers and recovery programs across the country, La Frontera has embraced garden-based or horticultural therapy as a tool for recovery.

In part, that’s because clients have asked for it. But it’s also because gardens seem to work.

There’s mounting evidence that plants and natural landscapes help keep people physically and mentally healthy.

For Thornydale resident Jeffery Burns, who describes his life before Thornydale as “rough,” the garden has been a doorway into a brand-new, gentler world.

“Before I was really impatient,” he says. “It [the garden] taught me patience, and it taught me to be gentle, because I only do stuff rough, I don’t do gentle stuff.”

Burns and his fellow gardeners won’t get to harvest everything they’ve planted. Like all other Thornydale residents, they will eventually return to their lives. But the garden will remain, waiting to welcome a new community of gardeners.

It’s a testament, Storm says, to the legacy people can build even in their darkest days.

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