The slender leaves of a weeping willow cascade over children who ride tricycles, revel in the shade, and pretend the tree's branches are a car wash. Fragrant honeysuckle wafts through the air; wind chimes sway rhythmically. Robins hunt for lunch, and on this breezy day, Anabel, a 3-year-old visitor wearing a jacket sporting ladybugs and flowers, worries "the plants are starting to blow away."
No, this isn't a suburban backyard or even just a lovely hidden garden in the bowels of Manhattan. Instead, the award-winning Children's PlayGarden is one of four restorative gardens especially designed for people who visit or reside in New York University's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Built in the late 1950s, the Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden was designed to provide patients and their families with a lush refuge from a sometimes austere and impersonal hospital environment.
The Glass Garden is a public botanic garden classified in the same cultural category as a museum - where plants, rather than paintings, are collected and curated. It was also one of the first facilities in the United States to develop an extensive horticultural therapy program, in which patients are encouraged to care for and to propagate plants.
"It felt like I was liberated," says Amy Brook Sniderof the first time she entered the garden in her wheelchair. The former Rusk patient attended horticultural therapy five days a week, which "got me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. We were focusing not on what's wrong with us but on something positive that was a link to being outside."
Since the late 1980s, the popularity of gardens in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other institutions in the United States has grown dramatically. Judy Haselhorst, a consultant for Kurt Salmon Associates, which specializes in renovating healthcare facilities, has yet to run into an organization that has not requested light, water, plants, or gardens in their redesigns, she says.
While there are no exact statistics on the number of people practicing horticultural therapy, the field gained national recognition in 1973, when the American Horticultural Therapy Association was founded. It currently has 12 chapters and nearly 800 members.
It's not unusual for Nancy Chambers, director of the Glass Garden, to get several phone calls a week from people requesting that she "tell me all you know" about the therapeutic use of gardens.
Dressed in oversized shirts and tennis shoes, Ms. Chambers gladly helps others in the field. She also actively promotes the training classes offered at the Glass Garden for landscape architects and gardeners interested in designing therapeutic gardens.
Independent and strong-minded, Chambers stresses the importance of other groups not simply replicating her programs and gardens but tailoring them to fit their own needs. Chambers often pokes fun at the conservatory at Rusk's Glass Garden. She wouldn't be surprised to find an exact replica of "this ugly old greenhouse" in Japan somewhere, she says.
On any given day in the conservatory, nannies with their charges sit adjacent to the aquatic garden, filled with koi, which the children love to feed. Ambulance drivers, security guards, and nurses stroll under the ferns. A doctor sits reading by a man-made waterfall, and a patient slowly pushes his walker past Zazu, an African gray parrot that alternately meows and barks in response to visitors' earnest "hellos."
Bamboo, the resident mouser, lounges in the sun but has been trained by Chambers and her staff not to harass the birds. The air is humid and smells like the earth. Classical music broadcast from behind the ferns competes with the chatter of lovebirds.
During Chambers's tenure at the Glass Garden, which began in 1986, she has added two new gardens: an ever-changing garden of perennial flowers and an award-winning children's garden, both of which are wheelchair-accessible.
With costs rising and budgets falling, Rusk Institute provides the Glass Garden with some funds, but Chambers must raise about half of the garden's $350,000 budget from grants, donations, plant sales, and other fundraisers.
Everything in the Glass Garden is designed to be at eye level for patients in wheelchairs. Chambers wants them to feel immersed in the greenery.
Another of Chambers's goals is to connect the hospital to its community. The roll-up-her sleeves, no-nonsense, can-do therapist constantly implements new programs and tries to reach out to individuals beyond the institute.
She and her staff have designed programs for seniors at nearby residences and for children diagnosed with HIV at Bellevue Hospital.
Chambers also has offered summer-camp programs in the garden and a Budding Gardener Program for preschoolers. "We'll try anything," she says.
One of the newer programs, designed for children in Rusk's acute-care unit and their families, was suggested by a long-time volunteer and has become one of the most successful activities.
During the hour-long sessions in the Glass Garden, Rusk patients propagate plants, arrange flowers, and make floral crafts. But they also get to just revel in being outdoors and sniffing the scent of the blossoms.
Besides giving patients a chance to get their hands dirty and take home some plants, the garden provides them the opportunity to socialize and also practice their fine motor skills and coordination.
"Everything is very tactile," Chambers says of working with plants. "It's very sensory rich.
"For kids born with disabilities, especially in New York City, it's very hard for parents to get them out into nature," she mentions.
This makes the Rusk Institute's PlayGarden especially valuable for such children, since those in wheelchairs or with braces can play safely and happily.
But visits to the garden aren't limited to those with disabilities. It's also a popular spot with city residents who live nearby.
"This is the best treasure this neighborhood has," says Ann Wachtal, who brings her son, Jack, to the garden every sunny day.
"We love it," she says. "It's half zoo and aquarium and half playground."
Then she reconsiders. "Don't tell anyone [about the garden]," she implores, only half jokingly.