A place where confidence blooms

Perkins’ Horticulture Center is a living classroom where students learn lessons about nature, work and themselves

A student holding a pumpkin

Matteo, a Lower School student, holds a pumpkin during the fall Farm to School Festival at the Horticulture Center. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon class at the Horticulture Center and everyone’s favorite plant is ruscus – a nondescript leafy green cutting used as filler for the day’s floral arrangement. The students are enamored not with the plant’s appearance, but with its name. Perkins Secondary Program student Nick spells out the word with relish: “R-U-S-C-U-S, ruscus!”

The students are busy arranging flowers in plastic vases, following the instructions of Horticulture Therapist Deborah Krause, who also coordinates all of the Center’s activities. After filling the vases with water, they carefully place stems of purple, blue and white flowers – called Snowflake Poms, to everyone’s delight – alongside the ruscus. A sparkly snowflake decoration completes the arrangement, mirroring the snow that is falling outside.

The “basic bud vases class,” as Krause calls it, has been taught to Perkins students for more than 30 years. The activity combines vocational training with an opportunity to practice fine motor and social skills. Students create the arrangements as independently as possible, and then deliver them to customers across campus.

“We’ve found that the students really like going on deliveries,” Krause said. “Part of the philosophy of horticulture therapy is knowing that you’re making something that makes people happy.”

Horticulture takes root

Tucked at the edge of campus behind a cluster of residential cottages, the Thomas and Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center is immediately recognizable by the retractable glass roof that rises above its low brick facade. Inside the vestibule, student-crafted sachets and flower wreaths line the wall, available for sale to staff and visitors.

The heart of the Center is the greenhouse – a jungle of smells, colors, textures and tastes. Tropical trees and flowering vines grow above students’ heads, crawling up trellises or over archways. Deep purple flowers the size of dinner plates peek out from behind a wall of shiny green leaves, their bright yellow centers visible from many yards away. In the background, the sound of trickling water from two fountains echoes lightly off the glass walls.

The greenhouse is divided into two sections. The tropical plants and fountains are part of a sensory garden where students use their sense of touch or smell to explore during horticulture therapy sessions. The remaining space is used for students to grow plants. Pots, many labeled with a student’s name in braille, crowd the tops of several tables and contain blossoming paperwhites and baby philodendron.

Students feel the pride and responsibility of caring for a living thing, and are excited to come to class every day to chart their plant’s progress, Krause said.

“As part of class we go in and explore – touch it, look at it, smell it, see if the bulb is growing,” she said. “There’s always something to look forward to.”

Horticulture has been part of the curriculum at Perkins School for the Blind since the school relocated to Watertown in 1912. At the time, students learned basic gardening skills by tending orchards and gardens that provided fruits and vegetables. More than 60 years later, horticulture therapy was introduced as a part-time pilot program. It expanded to full-time when Krause was hired as the first horticultural therapist in 1980.

Then, in 2003, the 5,000-square-foot Thomas and Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center opened its doors, allowing horticulture therapy to expand like never before at Perkins. Today, more than half of the school’s residential and day students participate in activities there.

The Center offers a variety of learning opportunities. Some events, like the bud vase class and a weekly Farmer’s Market, reinforce vocational skills. Others, like horticulture therapy sessions in the greenhouse, allow students to engage in tactile exploration of the natural world in a safe and nurturing environment.

Horticultural activities have one other benefit, said Krause – they’re fun. Students enjoy working with plants and flowers, so they’re eager to participate in class and learn new things.

“I’ve been teaching for 33 years, and in that time I don’t think there’s one student who did not make progress, whether it’s improved positive behaviors, increased initiative or expressing self-pride,” she said.

A therapeutic approach

Horticulture has been used therapeutically since the 1800s to promote personal growth and creative expression. For students who are blind or visually impaired, being able to feel the soft texture of a panda plant – with its fuzzy ear-shaped leaves – or smell the strong lemony fragrance of a scented geranium allows them to engage in sensory exploration. This is especially valuable for students who are blind, since they have less access to gardens, meadows and forests than their sighted peers.

For students who are sensitive to touch, therapy sessions can help them become comfortable with different kinds of physical contact.

“When you put a smell in front of them, or a soft texture, and they see that it doesn’t hurt them and they can actually touch it and relate to it, that’s where they start (to develop confidence),” said Marion Myhre, a horticulture therapist and teacher at Perkins for 19 years.

The harvest

In warmer months, students head outdoors to pick fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers from raised gardens and accessible planters outside the Center.

Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and peppers are harvested and sold at the student-run Farmer’s Market, where students can interact with campus customers and practice social skills. Produce is also donated to the Watertown Food Pantry, giving students valuable community service experience. Occasionally, students deliver vegetables to the cottage kitchens, where meals are prepared.

“That way the harvesting is meaningful,” Krause said. “They take pride in picking it and going right to the cottage and taking it to the cook.”

Production doesn’t stop in the winter, when Krause empties out drawers of dried herbs – thyme, mint and rosemary – for students to crush and sell. For those with less physical strength, a wooden tray with a wire mesh screen lets them crumble the herbs with minimal assistance. Dried flowers are used to decorate festive floral wreaths or fill aromatic sachets, to be hung in students’ rooms or given as gifts to family.

Teaching at the Center

For many Perkins teachers, the Horticulture Center is a natural extension of their classrooms. Kate Fraser, a science teacher in the Secondary Program, has students in her biology class dissect lilies to better understand plant reproduction. Her chemistry students learn about the effects of acid rain by conducting experiments using a mildly acidic solution and potted plants.

“It’s a wonderful resource with so many hands-on opportunities,” she said. “The kids have the chance to explore their world in a structured systematic way and understand how things are connected.”

Myhre has used succulents – plants that retain water in arid climates – to explain how plants can survive in the desert. She encouraged students to break open the leaves and feel the moisture stored inside. For students with some vision, she set up transparent containers that offer an up-close view of the root system.

“And if a student doesn’t have vision, there’s a lot of tactile exploration of the actual root we can do so they can understand the process and what the root does,” Myhre said. “There’s many different ways to tie into it.”

One last delivery

Bud vase in hand, Secondary Program student Kristina and Krause set off on the final delivery of the day. It’s going to Donna, a teaching assistant in one of the residential cottages.

When they arrive, Kristina smiles broadly and delivers her practiced greeting, “Hi, I have your delivery!” She hands over the vase and Donna admires the arrangement, asking about individual flowers.

After about five minutes, Krause signals it’s time to leave. “Thank you for being my customer,” Kristina says.

On the walk back to the Center, it’s turned bitterly cold, but Kristina continues to smile.

“I did a good job in Horticulture today, Deb,” she says. “I had fun.”