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Residents enjoy hands-on therapy of digging in the dirt

A greenhouse at the Martha & Mary Health and Rehab Center in Poulsbo is used for the hoticulture therapy program run by volunteer Joann Komedal, left, and Tracie Walthall, resident life services director. Komedal started the program when she worked at the care center more than 10 years ago, and she returned as a volunteer at Martha & Mary after she retired two years ago.Cleanliness is essential in a medical care facility, but patients enjoy getting their hands dirty at the Martha & Mary Health and Rehab Center.

They get the chance to do that — in a therapeutic way — with Joann Komedal, a volunteer who has returned to her roots.

When she went back to college later in life to get an associate’s degree in horticulture therapy at Edmonds Community College, she needed a place to put her knowledge and training to good use. She found it in Poulsbo.

“Martha & Mary allowed me to come here to do my practicum,” said Komedal, who wound up going to work at the senior residential care facility and starting a horticulture therapy program for the patients there.

She left Martha & Mary about 10 years ago to start her own plants business, but returned two years ago as a volunteer after she retired. She wasn’t around when a greenhouse was built to enhance the horticulture therapy program she created, but nowadays Komedal can often be found there supervising residents as they tend to an array of potted plants.

She also helps residents who are able to go outdoors take care of the 18 wheelchair-accessible raised garden boxes that produced a bountiful harvest of vegetables this summer.

“The residents love getting their hands in the soil,” she said.

Komedal explains how being a gardener is different from being a therapist.

“In gardening you’re working for the benefit of the plant,” she said. “In horticulture therapy it’s the opposite; you’re using the plant for the benefit of the resident.”

The benefits are getting patients outdoors, not merely for some fresh air, but to engage in a useful, hands-on activity.

“It’s purposeful,” said Tracie Walthall, resident life services director at the 190-bed facility. The residents enjoy “digging in the dirt and seeing things grow.”

She said some folks in the horticulture program entered vegetables from their garden boxes in the Kitsap County Fair. Other fair entries came from the “victory garden” that’s cultivated outside the care unit for Alzheimer’s patients, and some of the summer’s crop was used to make salsa and other dishes in a cooking program that residents assist with.

“We did pretty well. It was a good growing season,” Walthall said.

The greenhouse on the grounds is a well-utilized activity space for the Martha & Mary gardeners, and for any resident’s family and friends who drop by.

“It’s a destination place for when people come to visit,” Komedal said.

All the plants in the greenhouse are potted by residents, and Walthall said they often take cuttings to give plants as welcoming gifts to newly admitted residents.

“There’s hands-on potting and propagation going on at all times,” she said. “The residents also plant the hanging baskets on our veranda.”

They’ll soon be busy cutting those back and repotting them for keeping in the greenhouse through the winter, Komedal said.

Flowers are part of the horticulture therapy program as well. Extra flowers donated from Central Market in Poulsbo are used by residents to make centerpieces for tables in the dining room, and floral displays for reception areas and patients’ rooms.

Komedal recently joined Martha & Mary CEO Chad Solvie in presenting a framed floral paper wreath to Central Market staff on behalf of residents in appreciation for the store’s donations over the past 10 years.

Walthall said volunteers like Komedal, a retiree who’s been active in the county’s Master Gardener program and comes twice a week from her home in Seabeck, are an invaluable resource.

“She’s just a wonderful person; she loves the residents, and she loves what gardening does for them,” Walthall said. “She’s gotten back involved and we’re very blessed for that.”

Komedal said horticulture therapy can “help enhance their sense of well-being.” For patients recovering from a stroke or other degenerative disease, “it’s a way to get engaged again in life.”

Their efforts create a pleasant environment at the care center that residents, staff and visitors enjoy.

“Flowers and gardening give them a very special voice in their home at Martha & Mary,” Komedal said.

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