Woodhull honors green thumbs - Brooklyn Botanic Garden judges award top gardens at the hospital

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A collaboration between the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Woodhull Hospital has helped turn the fifth-floor Psychiatry Department into the greenest floor at Woodhull.

Over the past few months, residents and staff from each of the hospital’s six psychiatric units have been planting flower and shrubs in gardens on outdoor patios using the principles of therapeutic horticulture.

“This is the first year we’ve done it. There have been plantings at each unit before, but we’re doing a more focused therapeutic approach to the plantings,” said Robert McCue, director of the Psychiatry Inpatient Department at Woodull (760 Broadway).

This week, judges from the Botanic Garden evaluated the gardens at all six inpatient units at the Psychiatry Department. Unit One and Unit Two tied for first place, followed by Unit Three in second place and Units Four and Five, receiving third place. The first place units were recognized for their high degree of patient involvement with watering and maintenance, variety of plants and herbs, color, and interaction with nature.

“We’re looking for garden spaces on psychiatric units with the most therapeutic effect,” said Robin Simmen, director of Greenbridge at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (900 Washington Ave.). “The idea of the winner is not as important as getting people involved in the process and to continue the work they’ve started.”

The Psychiatric Department contains 155 adult beds for individuals in need of treatment for mental illnesses. The average length of stay is several weeks, though some patients can stay much longer. While each of the six units is locked, a part of a patient’s stay is to work with staff to help care for the gardens, which appeared to have brightened up the moods of several residents.

“I am in the garden all the time for the music the morning stretches, and volleyball,” said Odelia Thornhill, a patient on Unit One. “I love cold air and I thrive off of fresh air. I think I live out here and I cry when they close the door.”

Ted Ehrhardt, the director of Psychiatric Unit One, tried to have different plants based on the places where his patients are from originally. Unit One had a variety of plants and herbs, including mint, lavender, coleus, basil, hydrangea, marigolds, and spices from the Caribbean. Ehrhardt believes that the plants help comfort his patients who have grave problems and serious mental disorders.

“People have very strong associations with plants and they remember plants from their youth. For most people, their association is pleasant. If you were to see these plants in another place, you would feel pleasant. Who would expect to see plants at the fifth floor at a hospital?” said Ehrhardt.

Charles, a patient who did not give his last name, is responsible for tending the garden at another psychiatric unit. For 15 to 20 minutes every day, he waters and weeds the garden and participates in several group activities and arts therapy.

“It’s good for the patients to get out of bed and get fresh air,” Charles said. “It brings along a nice vibe. The flowers here bring your spirits up.”

Throughout the competition, the judges expressed that they were impressed with the enthusiasm of the staff and patients on the fifth floor and hoped they would continue gardening through the fall and winter months.

“Gardening is really a four season activity,” said Susan Fields, program director at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “There’s a lot of opportunity to create a habitat for wildlife and create spaces to interact with the natural world.”

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