An Enabling Garden: An interview with Alicia Green of Chicago’s Botanic Garden

As you enter the Buehler Enabling Garden, you will delight in how enveloped and comfortable you feel. It is nestled on one of Chicago Botanic Garden’s nine interconnected islands totaling 385 acres and six miles of lake shoreline. The Enabling Garden itself consists of three interconnecting outside “rooms” enclosed by lattice walls and interlaced with flowers, vegetables and vines.

We recently talked with the coordinator for the Buehler Enabling Garden, Alicia Green. Alicia has a B.A. in biology from the University of Illinois with an emphasis in ornamental horticulture. She began her career at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2000 as the nursery grower and continued to gain experience in interior landscaping, exterior landscaping, high-end garden retail, and holiday design. She obtained a master’s degree in counseling from Northeastern Illinois University in 2009 and is a national certified counselor as well as a registered horticultural therapist.

Nature Sacred: Tell us about your role in the garden.

Alicia Green: I have a multifaceted role. I maintain the health of the garden and lead others in doing so. I pick and design the seasonal plantings. We have Spring, Summer and Fall plantings that are rotated out. We have a greenhouse that grow the plants on site and I work with them to select what plants will be needed ahead of time. I also supervise our volunteers, about 34 right now. They lead nature interpretation, including tours, and acting as ambassadors and talking to visitors as they come in. They also help maintain the health of the plants; deadheading and weeding. I also maintain the collection. We are a living museum with a steady collection of plants and everything has a label and is documented. We also have horticultural therapy garden programs, teacher workshops, life enrichment groups and a veterans stress relief program. I mostly maintain programs that occur here in the garden but other staff members take our programs off-site. The exception to this is our veterans program because it has been really successful and we are expanding it to our partner location.

NS: Can you describe some of the activities offered to participants in the horticultural therapy garden program?

AG: For our elder visitors, we might do a flower arranging activity or make potpourri. Activities that contribute to sensory enrichment. We also help create potted gardens at assisted living facilities. This is our Garden for Life enrichment program that occurs off-site at partner organizations.

Other sensory enrichment activities might be eating a leaf from a stevia or lemon balm plant, or other edible flowers. Kids love it.

We also have one-time visitors who might do a fresh cut flower arrangement. We take them out into the garden and they cut a few. They (participants) really like being able to go out in the garden and select flowers. I also supplement of course from wholesale. I use flowers with bright colors or scents. This last year what has been popular is a succulent dish garden. Succulents are great because they’re fleshy, have swirly colors, are fuzzy. When we make the succulent garden we talk about different ecosystems and how plants have different cultural needs (light and moisture). They amend the soil and add the plants.

For our stroke support group, people who have had a stroke in their past, we use the succulent dish garden as a relaxation and sensory tool. We plant the succulents with sand. Drawing in the sand with your finger and making designs in the sand is relaxing.

Even with the children, we might do a propagation activity. Participants take a cutting and learn how to properly cut and root it. And they can maybe do it again when they go home. The pressed flowers art is popular. We make bookmarks and other art with children, elders and veterans.

For those with visual impairments, for example we have a group who visits once a year. They like doing a cooking program. They harvest herbs and vegetables and we make a dip or another edible dish. We use lettuce knives that can cut but are not too sharp and they really like creating this. We adapt regular activities to user needs.

Spring flowers in the Chicago Botanic Garden.


NS: Has there been a particular patient interaction or memory in these gardens that stands out in your mind?

AG: Generally, everyone has a positive experience. I notice most a change in mood. Visitors come in off a long bus ride and after interacting with sensory plants, people perk up. I see a lot of smiles. The most memorable interactions are with people who come more than once. Coming one time is Life Enrichment but if you come more often I see a more long lasting change.

One of our long time volunteers had a stroke and says the garden has saved his life. He waters our plants. He gets exercise and is responsible. He has a purpose here. It really gives him a place to come. Another person, with multiple sclerosis, says during the winter he misses our garden. Our volunteers feel employed. Being in the natural space is simply beneficial in itself but here they can take ownership. It is small and they can feel in control of what needs to be done to maintain it. People find peace there.

Another (experience that comes to mind) is the sensory plants. My recent favorite is a geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum). It smells like mint and has fuzzy leaves. It is bluish green. I pick plants that have purpose (for therapy) and are sensory. Visitors can smell, touch, look. For a children’s activity, they can pick flowers and float them in the fountains. I engage their sense of awe for nature. Interact. People who come in don’t get to interact with nature at that personal level. I make sure they have that experience.

NS: You mentioned the veteran program has been successful. Can you tell us more about that program?

AG: We have had a veteran program for the last few years. This is for veterans who are experiencing high stress and anxiety. The Chicago Botanic Garden has always worked with veterans in the “ VA hospitals” for 40 years but this program is new. We are now partnering with an organization, Thresholds. They come to the garden with their clients for a series of retreats. Veteran participants come on six retreats once a month and each last a few hours. It has been phenomenally successful. Our program is just a piece of Threshold’s program but the health of their clients has greatly improved. And we have had a lot of return members. Participants have said they just couldn’t wait to come back. The found peace here, let their guard down, felt relaxed and safe. For someone who feels on edge all the time this is a real relief.

When veterans come to the garden we do several activities. We’ve made succulent dish gardens or other types of plant dish gardens. We have made a memorial stepping stone for a personal garden. Harvested vegetables. We take them on a garden tour. They even like doing the pressed flower activity and many say they have never done that before!


NS: Can you tell us more about how this is successful?

AG: This program combines many elements that are attractive to veterans; service and comradery in a peaceful relaxing space. Each week is very project based and vets have an opportunitity to take ownership of our garden. We also open our garden to them in a way that is unique and special such as viewing buildings and spaces that are not open to the public. They appreciate that and feel very comfortable in our garden.

NS: For readers who haven’t visited Buehler, or who may be involved in an enabling garden in their community, what do you want others to know about the space and what it represents?

AG: The enabling garden is an example for so many. It is eleven thousand square feet and designed using universal design principles. The garden walk is paved and is wheelchair and ADA accessible. It is a walled garden that feels safe.  (NS: Can you explain what the walls look like?) It has lattice walls around it with hanging baskets and vegetation. It has specific entry and exit points and is a series of ‘ rooms’… a three roomed garden.

An enabling garden must be full of interesting and diverse plants (to provide benefit and interest to visitors). It must attract butterflies and hummingbirds; have flowers blooming in succession all year. (Have) plants that people can eat and harvest and pick and interact! People can draw into it.

Because it is based on principles of universal design anybody can find a place to garden. It is chock full of features. There are three different heights of raised beds and each is beneficial to a different population. One height is designed so that someone can water and doesn’t have to bend over or move sideways. Another height is good for someone in a wheelchair.

A grouping of containers can be used to make it look like a garden bed but is easier to move. A hanging basket on pulley systems allows a 60 pound basket to only weigh about 5 pounds for someone using it. The shallow pan bed has no legs underneath. It is six inches deep and is attached to the back of the wall. Someone can sit there or pull up a wheelchair. It has drainage in back so it doesn’t drain your lap! These are at three different heights.

There are also six vertical garden walls bolted to a brick wall with wood hinges. The garden walls open up like a door and can be lined with landscape material, closed and filled with soil from the top. Then slits are cut in the material and plants are inserted vertically. It is easier to water and maintain and has a slow release fertilizer.

Image: Chicago Botanic Garden


Another important design element are the bathrooms. In a redesign of the space we spent a large part of the budget installing a closer bathroom. For many visitors, they don’t visit outside spaces because there aren’t close bathrooms. The enabling garden is also centrally located by a parking lot and this helps our visitors.

Another point of advice for others working in gardens like ours is the value of partnership. Partnering with veteran health non-profits, assisted living facilities, schools, and other organizations whose main focus is pulling people together really allowed us and these other organizations to meet our respective goals.Partnering with a like minded non-profit can benefit both programs.

We have also had success with “Care for the Caretaker” day. If you bring in leaders (of possible partner organizations) and give them an experience in the garden first, maybe they will bring in their clients.

NS: Is there anything else you would like to share with others about the garden?

AG: We really have a special place. Just being here is what people need. Coming here as a volunteer or a participant touches peoples lives. The beauty really touches people, the natural environment. This is my sixth year and all I hear is positive feedback. My norm is that. it is a pleasure to create and provide this place for people to come.

NS: Thank you for talking with us about your space and your opportunities!

Note: You can virtually tour the urban green space yourself and learn more about pollinators, photography possibilities, and rose gardens using their guided tour smartphone app and website: