Gardening grows coping skills

Sam Hough noticed that  Silas could be soothed by feeding him chamomile.

Sam Hough noticed that Silas could be soothed by feeding him chamomile.

Anxiety, phobias, depression and other similar conditions can be debilitating. Sapping the ability to move through life in an easy way, anxiety disorders effect not only humans, but animals as well.

Last growing season, our horse barn manager, Sam Hough, observed that a few horses were showing signs of anxiety at times. After discussing her concerns, we grew a small set of specific herbs for the horses on campus with the definitive objective of helping to lower the horses’ level of unease. We grew a few pots of chamomile and lavender and Sam noticed, over time, that by using the herbs in different ways, the horses were not showing the same levels of agitation and steadily seemed calmer overall.

This year, we decided to make a statement with our equine herbal garden. Tony Kimble, our woodshop teacher par excellence, happily agreed to have his vocational woodshop students help turn the pallet I rescued from a dumpster into a plantable container. The kids did a great job, and I enjoyed a few moments in between classes watching some of my high school students cut wood, drill screws and work cooperatively in order to complete the assigned project for their garden teacher.

Some students started chamomile and marigolds from seed several weeks ago, specifically with the horses in mind. We dug out some mint from our  garden, and one of my most devoted students helped to plant the herbs in the pallet. This particular student also does a really nice job in riding class, so he seemed like a natural fit to work on a project that bridges these two areas.

To be honest, there’s a much deeper level to choosing this particular student. Recently, this student has been struggling with a few issues, including poor decision-making. His name came up in a few staff meetings, and although he is consistently doing a good job in gardening class, he is not doing as well in other areas. After speaking with his teacher, his dorm staff and finally him, we formed a plan so he could earn the opportunity to collaborate on this project. He lived up to our agreement, and his teacher willingly let me schedule additional time outside of our weekly class to plant the special herb garden and hang the pallet planter.

While this student struggles with more than anxiety, I’m anticipating that our project will help him as much as it helps our horses, albeit in a different way. I’m aware that this assignment won’t solve all of my student’s issues, but I am hoping that he will take two things away from our pallet planter experience. The first is that he feels proud. Proud that he put together this really cool hanging planter which will be used to help the horses. Proud that he achieved his goal. The second takeaway is that gardening offers him an opportunity to connect with an activity that offers calm and peace, versus frustration and anger.

If these objectives are met, I believe this child’s self-esteem will become a little stronger and the awareness of using gardening as a coping skill to deal with stress and anxiety will be reinforced. As time progresses, and we find moments to check in with the planter and how the horses are enjoying their holistic care, I will be checking in with my student and quietly trying to help him connect the dots of our experience. Small, but meaningful steps in learning to deal with issues that he will face throughout his life.


About Green Chimneys Garden

Green Chimneys was founded on the belief that children will benefit from their interaction with nature and animals. Horticulture comes to life in our educational school gardens, allowing Green Chimneys students to heal, learn, and grow. Learn more about about our nature-based approach to special education by visiting
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