Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series: Elizabeth “Leah” Diehl, RLA, HTM
Our second in the series of interviews takes us to the College of Medicine Healing Gardens and Teaching Laboratory at the University of Florida Medical School. Leah Diehl is a landscape architect and registered horticultural therapist who is responsible for building an amazing series of programs at Wilmot Gardens at the University of Florida.
Wilmot Gardens, on the University of Florida campus, is located in the heart of the Southeast’s largest academic health center. The gardens are dedicated to advancing patient care, research, and service through its vibrant and growing therapeutic horticulture program. The Therapeutic Horticulture Program at Wilmot Gardens resides at the core of the garden’s mission to improve lives through gardening.
As a side note, the gardens are open to the public year-round and boast an unrivaled collection of camellias in North Central Florida. Wilmot Gardens is named for Royal James Wilmot, who was a horticulturist with the Agricultural Experiment Station at UF in the 1940s. He founded the American Camellia Society in Gainesville.
Throughout these interviews, we are reaching out to landscape architects who have been instrumental in leading the design and development of Healthcare and Therapeutic Gardens. We would like people to know more about the leaders in the field of Healthcare and Therapeutic Garden design in order to illustrate the greater relevance of this field.
The following interview with Leah was conducted by Jack Carman, FASLA, past chair and current officer of the Healthcare & Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network (PPN). Leah was reached by phone between therapeutic horticulture sessions.
Jack Carman (JC) – It is good to be able to catch up and talk. Thank you for taking the time to chat. I appreciate the opportunity to share ideas and thoughts about therapeutic gardens and how this field has been growing over the past several years. How did you get to where you are today and how did you combine the fields of horticultural therapy and landscape architecture?
Leah Diehl (LD) – It was personal for me. My brother had a traumatic brain injury when he was two years old. Growing up with him gave me a special perspective for the needs of those with disabilities. When I went to college, I was very interested in special education, but I had also always wanted to be an architect. I decided to pursue architecture because I figured I could volunteer in a special education setting but probably couldn’t volunteer in an architecture studio.
In my fifth year of architecture school, I took a guest studio course given by a landscape architect. That was my ‘a-ha’ moment. It is when things all came together for me. The wheels started to turn and I became fascinated by experiential design. After graduating I went straight to University of Pennsylvania and got my MLA. My interest in experiential design began to morph into healing and therapeutic design and I think it was at that point that I came full circle, back to my roots of wanting to serve those with special needs.
My plan was to move back home to Chicago and look for a job after grad school, so I sent a letter to the director of Misericordia Home, the residential facility at which my brother was now living. I asked if I could volunteer my time to start a community garden with the residents there, and she apparently liked the idea so much she asked me to come work full-time doing just that. It wasn’t the LA job I had envisioned for myself, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I created a horticultural therapy program (without even knowing there was such a thing as ‘horticultural therapy’) and also helped the facility create some garden spaces as well. The program grew, and it is still in place today.
As much as I loved that job, I decided to accept an assistant professor position at West Virginia University teaching landscape architecture, where one of my focus areas was therapeutic and healing design. About that time I also took over the editorship for the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, published by the American Horticultural Therapy Association. So you can see how the pieces of the puzzle began fitting together.
JC – With your background in design, how did you see horticultural therapy fitting in more with what you wanted to do overall?
LD – Many times landscape architects focus primarily on design. Based on my perspective and experience, it’s just as important to create vibrant and enticing programming and real opportunities for connecting with nature within the new space. That’s not as easy as we sometimes think it is. When we create a therapeutic outdoor environment, designing for its use is crucial. For example, how can we create an environment that is rich in sensory stimulation where those opportunities are available, inviting, and reproducible? To me, one of the most important aspects of healing design is the opportunity to discover things in the garden—a chance for people to explore and be rewarded for doing so through the discovery of something interesting. That’s the experiential design I talked about earlier, and I believe that design that invites exploration and discovery in a garden greatly enriches the healing experience.
JC – What are some of your goals for the programs and gardens within the campus of the University of Florida Medical School?
LD – One of the things that is unique about our program at UF is that we offer on-site programming for a wide range of special populations, we offer educational programs for students (and are currently creating a graduate certificate program in horticultural therapy), we are conducting research on people-plant interactions, and we are multidisciplinary in nature. That gives us a wide reach, but because we are only four years old, we still have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about horticultural therapy and therapeutic and healing design. Being situated in the middle of UF’s medical campus provides a great position from which to get the word out, and we are doing just that, while also making some exciting connections across disciplines.
JC – You have a unique setting there, on the campus of the University. Tell me what is so special about the gardens and how you’ll be able to incorporate them into your programs.
LD – Wilmot Gardens is just under five acres and offers a variety of settings, some cultivated, others not, that we can take advantage of in our programming and research. There is a rich history to our gardens that enriches our connection to the university and surrounding community. We have received some wonderful donations, the most recent one to establish a healing garden within the larger garden. The hardscape for that garden was completed this fall and we are now planting.
JC – What do you see for the future of the programs and gardens at the medical school?
LD – As I mentioned, Wilmot Gardens is surrounded by many of UF’s medical and research facilities. The gardens are regularly used by patients, their families, healthcare workers and other faculty and staff, and of course students. Visitors express their appreciation and thankfulness for the gardens daily and we want to continue to provide different spaces in the garden to accommodate visitors’ ‘healing’ needs. We are also dedicated to ongoing research on the effects of the garden and the therapeutic horticulture program. We can see that the gardens are making a difference in people’s lives but we want to prove it to others through rigorous and thoughtful research.