CYC-Online 55 AUGUST 2003
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Horticulture therapy in a boys' remand unit: A personal diary

Anne Nightingale

My first idea on campus was to create a garden at the “level four” site outside the building. The place was full of weeds and stones, but small and contained enough to start with. Most boys in our care have a very short attention span so my idea was that any boy interested in the project would be taken out for half-hour periods, just the two of us. Because it was seen to be “work,” they tried to negotiate for an extra smoke as a reward but, when this was denied, they agreed to a three-session contract, after which they would receive the princely sum of €2, to be deposited in their account every second week. It was set up this way to distance the activity from the money. I wanted the immediate gratification to come from the gardening itself rather than from some external reward.

For many of the boys, digging was immediate and masculine enough to capture their interest, but the planting presented a more formidable challenge. I decided upon a mixture of instant and longer term growth using bedding plants and perennial herbs and seeds. The herbs were interesting because I could talk about smell and texture and what each herb was used for. They always seemed to remember that Feverfew was good for migraine and the thought of eating it raw in sandwiches caught their imagination. On the other hand, none wanted to taste any of the herbs though they were willing to smell.

Developing an appreciation for nature’s ways came a little later with the task of preparing bedding plants. We began with a single colour, blue, and we bedded in the Pansies (of course the name of this flower provoked comments and giggles). And so began the garden.

We then planted more herbs, including Fennel, Mint, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme and Sage, interspersed with Lavender and Evening primroses. Seeds of Nasturtium were started indoors using recycled paper cups or yoghurt pots.

When the project was well under way, I asked the boys if they would allow me to take some photographs of them working. They enthusiastically agreed. My original idea was simply to make a collage and a photographic history of the garden, but of course this would give me an outlet for another passion of mine, photography. The boys loved having their pictures taken and delighted in posing for the camera so our enthusiasm was shared. From this experience I have made many other discoveries about the use of photography as a tool in building self-esteem, but more about this later.

As the garden was on the “walk circuit” many other boys and staff passed by each day and cast admiring glances on our project. Expressions of appreciation and encouragement came as each new season produced its own array of plants and flowers. Many of the boys are still amazed that I am willing to eat the herbs and, given their understanding of nature, the idea of things growing for food or flavour remains quite foreign.

I slip in little bits of information as we work – sowing my own seeds, you might say. It really is education in its truest sense, the drawing out and discovering hidden talents and strengths, with many unwritten agendas becoming known, not only to the boys, but also to myself.

The garden continues to flourish and weeding and watering is done regularly in our usual half-hour sessions. Annual seeds are now growing among the other flowering perennials such as Bush Mallow, Ox Eye Daisies, Aster and Valerian. We have added other flowers around the unit in various planters, some purchased, some made from old tyres. Broken wheelbarrows have been commandeered and recycled as containers for Violas and Polyanthus. One wheelbarrow is painted a glorious red while another, painted white, sits outside the nurse’s office vibrant with yellow Bidens. In the spring blue Muscari will appear. We also have a full-size rowing boat (an old woodwork project) lined with polythene and converted into a feature flowerbed. It contains Holly Bush, summer red Pelargoniums, and blue and yellow Pansies that will be followed in the spring by a trumpeting of daffodils.

Our flower boat is located outside the laundry area, thus bringing a cheery aspect and a focal point for the boys as they walk to school and the gym. With the boys expecting more unusual and creative things from the project, two old working boots, rescued from a skip were painted and planted, bringing many smiles and more subtle teaching about recycling.

I continue to record all this through the photographs.

A more recent innovation is the pond at Ardgillan. “Ahh! Yes, Anne,” was the response of management to this idea, “have a go”. The first sods were sliced off the short grass and wheel-barrowed away to another area of the campus.

The digging began slowly at first. Fortunately the Irish rainfall had left the ground quite soft to start us off. Half-hour sessions were long enough and the counting of each barrow load was inevitable but I continued to stress that this was not a competition and that no boy’s work effort was being measured against another’s. Fun and enjoyment was the order of the day. “Stop while you are still having fun” was another slogan I frequently voiced.

Then the ground hardened as we reached subsoil and the pickaxe was bought to assist with the job. The overhead swinging was using up more of that very contained energy and testosterone. Boys from the other units came to watch and (reminiscent of Tom Sawyer) some asked if they too could dig a few shovelfuls. Such was their interest in the pond.

Meanwhile the workers began to ask questions and seek solutions. “Will this work on a slope? Where will the water come from? Will it overflow? Is it level? Is it deep enough? Is it too deep? Will there be a fountain? Will you need a pump? Who will do the electrics?” We continued undeterred.

The boys enjoyed the digging and wheelbarrow journeys across the campus. They could see the results of their efforts and this was a reward for them. Eventually I did agree that the excavation was indeed deep enough and the pre-formed pond was put into place and back-filled with sand. Once again came the satisfaction of digging – they reminded me of the two-year-old porters that Maria Montessori observed in her study of childhood. This time they found that the sand was a bit easier but an equally satisfying medium to dig and transport.

"Put me on the list"
Most days when I arrived on shift a chorus of three or four voices would shout: “Anne, put me on your gardening list.” This was very encouraging for me. Horticulture as therapy was working here in OBS.

Sometimes the weather or staffing difficulties meant that I was not always free to go and work in the garden and it was obvious that the boys were disappointed. The pond was a great attraction and, while the idea of a waterfall was always at the back of my mind, I had no idea how it might work. I allowed the boys to experiment with logs and other large boulders and the like found on the campus. We varnished some lovely pieces of stone to highlight their distinctive qualities and before long the water was flowing. We then added water plants and fish and there is now sufficient oxygen to maintain the delicate balance of pond life.

In the Remand Unit we find that, because of the short-term placement of the boys, their sometimes incomplete histories and unpredictable responses, we must maintain a tight rein to reduce the possibility of unruly or violent behaviours that might threaten personal safety. This means that there are limited opportunities for boys to use the energy that comes from raw enthusiasm or excitement. But horticultural therapy isn’t all about gardening as the following story illustrates.

While out gardening one day, a boy who was using a watering hose, and getting very wet in the process, noticed the rainbow effect from the sunlight shining through the spray. I discreetly watched from a distance and could only guess at his thoughts and feelings. I sensed his excitement, daring himself to take it further but how could he without getting a “stop it” shout from me? He took the risk. (The possibility of my getting drenched was in the back of my mind too!) I wanted to be open and as willing and as safe as possible so I just watched and shared his delight from a distance as he wallowed in the freedom of giving himself a thorough soaking, grinning all the time.

This freedom to revert to pleasures of childhood play occurred on another occasion when two boys who were being supervised by two staff were permitted to engage in a water fight. I was able to catch this blissful boyhood enjoyment with my camera. The elation and huge sense of fun was just wonderful to witness. These boys were re-learning to play, and discovering that exhilaration can be fun without danger – unlike the serious things such as joy riding, for which many of them had been placed in the remand unit.

The photographs have proven to be a huge bonus, offering the boys and their families a permanent reminder that there can be laughter and fun and a sense of achievement, even in a remand unit. As I mentioned earlier, I have given considerable thought to how photography can open up exciting possibilities in building positive self-images. I still wonder how these boys with appallingly low levels of self-esteem can be so open and eager to be photographed, taking great pleasure in the pictures of themselves. These are often pinned up on their bedroom walls. Occasionally I would arrange for certain prints to be enlarged to full A4 size and these were particularly prized. How many so-called healthy adults can look at pictures of themselves in wonder and approval, let alone display them for daily viewing?

But, back to the garden.

When I decided that we should plant ten trees for St Patrick’s Day in 1999, I realised that I still needed considerable patience and persistence for my ideas to flourish. At this time, the opportunity to bring boys out was somewhat limited due a particularly difficult group of residents. The digging of the holes and the subsequent planting of the ten young saplings of Silver birch and Mountain Ash took over three weeks to complete.

Meanwhile, some staff colleagues were not sure about all this environmental stuff, and others wondered about the absence of stakes on the trees and went on to point out that trees had never succeeded before because it was too windy and the soil was not right. And wouldn’t the boys pull at them going to school? So many negative comments, but I was not deterred – much!

So here we are, well past their first anniversary, the trees are doing well, still unstaked and now protected with wire to stop the hares chewing the bark. They are looking great. In January 2000, to celebrate the millennium, we planted an additional five Rowan trees outside the church and located on the way to school so each day the boys could see the results of their work and enjoy a feeling of ownership of all that was growing. I was delighted that three other staff members had joined in my interest and also participated in this planting project. The digging of the holes and hammering in of stakes (these were bigger than the St Patrick’s day trees) took about a week, as the attention span of the work group is characteristically short. As always, I invite the boys to stop digging while they are still having fun.

For myself, I am reminded that my involvement with the boys is not just about tasks and projects but about discovery, innovation and creativity; it is also to enjoy the progress of the task and the pleasures of sharing information through conversation in an easy-going semi-structured manner.

This feature: By agreement this article, edited by Gerry Fewster, is published in CYC-ONLINE and as Nightingale, A.M. (2003) Horticulture therapy in a boys' remand unit: A personal diary, Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, Vol.16 No.2, pp.33-36

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