February is a welcome time to see green—and that’s what you’ll get as you walk into the Colorado Convention Center from February 22 to March 1 during the annual Colorado Garden and Home Show. In fact, you’ll see every color of the rainbow (and more) thanks to the staggering number of flowers (10,000) spread throughout the complex. But sight isn’t the only sense visitors can use to enjoy the acres of plants.

That’s because horticulture therapy, and more specifically “sensory gardens” are taking center stage at this year’s event. This genre, now relatively popular in the gardening and landscaping industry, essentially refers to gardens that urge visitors to engage with all their senses. Not only is smelling, hearing, touching, and tasting plant life fun, but it can be therapeutic as well.

As part of its grant program, the Colorado Garden Foundation will award a total of $543,000 to these local nonprofits, which use horticulture as a means to promote healing, learning, and in some cases, hope.

Anchor Center for Blind Children sunflower
An Anchor Center for Blind Children student reaches for a sunflower. Courtesy of Anchor Center for Blind Children

Anchor Center for Blind Children: Horticulture Therapy Program
Anchor Center will receive a $9,000 grant to renovate their outdoor classroom and continue their compost services, which they use to teach students about the plant life cycle and environmental sustainability. 

Horticulture has become central to the curriculum at this Stapleton institution, which has been around for almost four decades. The center, which provides education and therapy to children from infancy to age five who live with visual impairments, depends on its outdoor spaces for horticulture therapy. One of those spaces they call the “pizza garden,” where the youngsters can improve their motor skills by helping plant the seeds of basil and tomato plants. As they grow, the students can smell and feel the plants, until finally they become toppings on handmade pizzas. The process not only engages the children’s senses, but also helps them make connections from seed to plant, to a delicious meal.

The center also has a bountiful sunflower patch, where children plant seeds and later feel the flowers’ stalks grow until the petals are barely reachable above their heads. “It can be really impactful for them to see the flowers grow even taller than they are,” says Molly Jenkins, one of Anchor’s managers

Such experiences are vital for the 100-plus students who are involved with the Anchor Center per year. “What we know from research is that up to 90 percent of early learning takes place through incidental visual observation,” Jenkins says. So for these kids, the lessons, activities, and skills they learn at the Anchor Center can help close the gap that could otherwise appear between them and their peers.

Norwood Public Schools: Outdoor Education
Norwood Public Schools will receive a $15,000 grant to add on to their outdoor classroom area.

Three years ago, teachers within the Norwood Public Schools District installed a hoop house—a greenhouse-like structure—to become part of their outdoor education curriculum for high schoolers. Now, with the grant they received from the Colorado Garden Foundation, they can install irrigation and build plant beds. Students who take the school’s agriculture course, now in its second year, will then be able to design and create additions to the existing hoop house, incorporating other disciplines such as woodwork and welding for a fountain or water feature.

The idea is for the program to be interdisciplinary, incorporating not only trade skills like those listed above, but also to help students who are interested in agriculture understand the value of their math, bio, or writing classes. Science teacher Catherine Kolbet used two students as examples: Both wanted to become ranchers, and thanks to the agriculture curriculum, were able to grasp how algebra would play into accounting their property and livestock and how grammar could strengthen their correspondence with stakeholders.

“We appreciate that the foundation was willing to take the risk,” Kolbet says. “Now we’re just waiting for the ground to thaw to get started.”

Denver Art Museum: Sensory Garden and Courtyard
The DAM will receive a $50,000 grant to complete its sensory garden and courtyard, including adding an additional terrace. 

Prescribing art as medicine is being seriously considered in the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere. Though the trend has yet to gain traction here in the U.S., it’s the premise behind the Denver Art Museum’s next big project: a sensory garden and courtyard. The idea is to create a space that fosters community creativity by bringing together people, plants, and art, says Heather Nielsen, the museum’s director of learning and community engagement.

Designed by Didier Design Studio—the firm responsible for the steppe garden, sensory garden, and all-American selections garden at Denver Botanic Gardens—the courtyard will ultimately serve as both an aesthetic outdoor setting and an education space. For example, an “Art and About” tour for visitors with dementia or Alzheimer’s could be one likely program. 

Though the museum’s new digs are set to open June 6, the installation of the sensory courtyard will be ongoing into the fall. The plan is to incorporate community input and then host planting days, so that visitors can play a role in the creative process. 

Craig Hospital: Garden Repairs and Improvements
Craig Hospital will receive a $3,750 grant to replace a flagstone pathway and update its existing garden spaces.

When Craig Hospital’s horticulture therapy program was just a seedling back in 1982, the program largely focused on rehabilitating and providing adaptive equipment to recovering farmers, gardeners, and ranchers. Since then, under the leadership of coordinator Susie Hall, who joined the team in 1994, the program has expanded to offer a mix of physical and mental therapy to patients who are recovering from spinal cord and brain injuries. 

By partnering with the hospital’s physical and speech therapists, the horticulture team works toward goals through gardening. Take, for example, a recent patient recovering from a traumatic brain injury who is able to stand longer working in the greenhouse than in the treatment center. Or patients who can practice memory skills and problem-solving in a more bucolic setting than a hospital room. Hall says some patients have sent her thank you notes, claiming they don’t know what they would have done without the horticulture program at Craig. 

“It’s a way to connect people with plants,” Hall says. For some, that may mean diving back into their previous activities involving gardening or being in nature. For others, it’s an introduction to a new leisure activity. The form of therapy has taken off globally; Hall says she’s seen representatives from Japan, Hong Kong, Norway, Australia, and elsewhere at horticulture therapy conferences. 

Colorado Garden Foundation tulips
Courtesy of Colorado Garden Foundation

It doesn’t end there…
Beyond the grant recipients, the Colorado Garden and Home Show has, for the past quarter century, selected a community group to box up a majority of the flowers and take them to local nursing homes (this year it’ll be a local junior football team). “It costs us about $1,500 to give our flowers away,” says Jim Fricke, Colorado Garden Foundation executive director. “But we think it’s money well spent. Because when they walk into the nursing homes, they say the look on residents’ faces is amazing.”

If you go: The Colorado Garden and Home Show takes place February 22 to March 1 at the Colorado Convention Center. Tickets are available online