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Published May 21, 2009, 09:35 AM

Lakes Homes brings garden therapy to residents for 10 years

Anyone who spends their spare time planting, pruning, watering and harvesting will tell you that there’s something soothing about working with nature.

By: Courtney Sinner, DL-Online

Anyone who spends their spare time planting, pruning, watering and harvesting will tell you that there’s something soothing about working with nature.

Tom Reiffenberger has parlayed his Master Gardener status into his job for over 10 years with that very idea in mind.

For those that thought nature’s relaxing qualities were just coincidental, Reiffenberger, the executive administrator at Lakes Homes and Program Development, calls it horticulture therapy.

Along the lines of music therapy or dog therapy, he said, it helps relax and improve the lives of the residents at Lakes Homes’ various group homes in the area.

Lakes Homes’, a local nonprofit, works with adults who have developmental disabilities, many of whom reside in group homes. The organization has most of their locations in Becker County, but has also expanded to Ottertail and Mahnomen counties.

Reiffenberger became a certified Master Gardener about 12 years ago after taking an 8-week long course through the University of Minnesota Extension Office, where students learned the specifics of plant pathology, insects, diseases and how to research problems and help a fellow Gardener with a problem.

Not long after receiving his certification, Reiffenberger decided to get residents of Lakes Homes involved. The organization wrote up a grant proposal to the American Horticulture Society and received enough to build a greenhouse — the same one that most Detroit Lakes residents see on Summit Avenue.

Now, he said, every one of Lakes’ Homes locations has some sort of garden, whether it’s a simple window box or full landscaping with raised beds, ponds and walking paths.

Residents help with much of the gardening work, he said, but it varies significantly depending on the functioning level of the resident.

“It totally depends on the individual,” he said. “We have a group of very interested people, who had either done work on a farm or grew up around it, and they can be quite independent, whereas some can just hold the hose and water things, and some just put their hands in the soil and feel it.”

There are many benefits, too, Reiffenberger said. It helps with physical activity for some, but for some, the sense of accomplishment from completing a task can be all it takes.

“It depends on their function level, but it’s initiating a task that they can be successful at is why it’s so important,” he said. “And plants, you know, they’re a living thing, so they’re delicate, but if you’re too rough with it and it breaks or whatever, it can also be replaced.”

Reiffenberger recalled one young resident who would fill pot after pot with soil as his task.

“It gets to be rote filling, but then he’s not thinking about other socially unacceptable behaviors,” he explained. “It takes their minds off of other things.”

There are many social benefits, too.

“We often have garden parties or tea parties, and compete at the Becker County Fair,” he said. “And it’s considered kind of a normal act, and appropriate for all age groups.”

Although each garden is different, Reiffenberger said there is typically a lot of color in the front, and vegetable and herb gardens elsewhere.

“And then when people drive by they won’t say, ‘Oh there’s the group home,’ they’ll say ‘Look at those flowers,’ instead of the stigma of the location of a group home,” he explained.

It’s not just planting and tending to outdoor gardens, either.

Although Reiffenberger said they’re busy in springtime with planting, even in wintertime, staff finds ways to bring nature inside with pine boughs at Christmastime and leaves during Thanksgiving.

In the summer, then, they’ll have a “theme.” Last year’s, he said, was peppers and tomatoes — residents helped plant seedlings, which were then sold to staff and other residents.

At the end of the summer, they held a contest for the best produce, or the biggest, and residents could win prizes. At the end, a potluck was held, but the dish had to be made using the peppers and tomatoes.

He continues to help out at the Extension Office, especially in the summers, when they operate plant and pest clinics.

Reiffenberger said the Extension Office continues to offer the Master Gardener class — in fact, they just completed another class in Perham, where over 60 participants became Master Gardeners. Most were from Ottertail County, he said.

He also volunteers his time there for the Plant and Pest Clinic, answering phones and helping research and diagnose plant problems.

Lakes Homes is also sponsoring an upcoming community event for Gardeners:

“Real Gardens for Real People,” a gardening workshop, will be on May 2 from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Detroit Lakes campus of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College.

To learn how to design basic floral arrangements, show exhibits at flower shows, or how to judge exhibits, the “Exhibiting and Judging School” will be on May 30 at the Lakes Homes office.

Finally, a middle-of-summer “Shoe Container Show” will showcase plants grown in shoes at the Washington Square Mall on July 16.

Contact Tom Reiffenberger, (218) 847-5642, for more information on any of these upcoming events.

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