The Ability Garden works with Lake Forest Academy


The field of horticultural therapy, using gardening as a therapeutic tool, aims to harness the healing powers of nature and use it to break down physical, behavioral and emotional barriers. Building on the positive results horticultural therapy has shown on adults, gardens are now appearing in schools across the country.

School gardens impact social and emotional well-being by teaching valuable life lessons, such as the ability to work collaboratively and take on new responsibilities. It takes patience to watch and wait for the plants to grow. It takes discipline to weed, prune and maintain a garden. When it’s finally time to harvest, students discover the rewards for their hard work, in turn fostering confidence, pride and self-esteem. The Ability Garden allows destitute students to have a family garden to experience the richness of nature’s classroom.

The Ability Garden began working with Lake Forest Academy to establish a garden club in 2014 as part of their therapy program. Lake Forest Academy is an alternative school that provides services to students who are struggling in traditional schools, often due to learning disabilities or behavioral issues. The Academy was established in 2005 when New Hanover County recognized that these issues were symptoms of a student’s family life, socioeconomic status, or mental health, which severely interfered with their ability to learn. The Academy aims to meet the educational, social and psychological needs of the most vulnerable young people in our community.

The Garden Club uses gardening as a vehicle to teach respect, responsibility and thoroughness as well as to foster a sense of calm and belonging. Students have a gardening club once a week and participate in a variety of activities. Each category has its own raised garden bed, which means it takes care of the planting, maintenance and harvesting of its crops.

As an intern at Ability Garden, I started helping the garden club in early October 2021, and on day one we harvested the last of the summer crops to make way for the hardy winter crops. The kids were so excited to see and taste what their growing season produced. I saw a student take a bite out of a freshly dug up radish as if it were an apple. When it was time to plant the winter varieties, I presented the kids with a tray of cold-hardy vegetables and expected to receive disappointing comments about kale, collard greens and Brussels sprouts. Instead, I encountered curiosity and enthusiasm for green leafy vegetables! I have never seen children so enthusiastic about eating vegetables and trying new things. When asked if he liked the garden club, a fifth grader said, “In my old school, we could only garden once a month. I like it here because we garden all the time. I feel better when I’m outside. That relaxes me. “

The Fitness Garden and Garden Club have not only had an impact on the lives of the children who attend Lake Forest Academy, but also on my life. I hope to continue to educate children and adults on the benefits of gardening and horticultural therapy.

To start discovering the healing benefits of nature, visit the Ability Garden at the New Hanover County Arboretum. For more information on our good work in the community or the events taking place at the Arboretum, please visit

Cameron Deisroth is a Public Health Intern at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington at the Ability Garden of the New Hanover County Arboretum | NC Cooperative Extension, located at 6206 Oleander Drive. The arboretum is free and open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Contact Cameron at [email protected] or 831-383-9916.


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