Public Info

Award-Winning Union County Horticulture Program Benefits Children and Adults

Union County, NJ – The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders is pleased to announce that the County’s long-running Horticulture for People with Disabilities program has been recognized for Excellence in Programming by the New Jersey Recreation and Park Association, the state’s leading professional organization in the field of recreation services and land stewardship.

The program was created by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County through its volunteer Master Gardener program, in conjunction with the Union County Department of Parks and Community Renewal.

“Horticulture for People with Disabilities began 25 years ago on a somewhat modest footing, and over the years we have seen it blossom into a state and national role model,” said Freeholder Chairman Linda Carter. “The Freeholder Board is very proud of our Master Gardener volunteers, and of all who have worked to make the program an effective and successful one.”

Directed horticulture projects have long been recognized as an effective way to exercise the mind, spirit and body, leading to improved outcomes for people with disabilities. Horticultural therapy can also serve as a pathway to a vocation for both volunteers and participants.

The roots of the Union County program date back to 1988, when Master Gardener volunteers began offering a biweekly horticultural therapy program at a local health care facility.

The program was an overwhelming success, with a ripple effect that included the establishment of fully accessible outdoor vegetable gardens and an arboretum.

In 2009, Union County expanded its offerings to focus on children with autism, resulting in the Horticulture for Children with Disabilities collaboration between the County, Master Gardeners, Children’s Specialized Hospital, and the local advocacy group Autism Family Times.

“When you see how children in this program gain confidence through participating in new activities and new social situations, you begin to realize how essential these enriching experiences are,” said Freeholder Alexander Mirabella. As Chairman last year, Mirabella initiated the Sensory Friendly Theater series at the Union County Performing Arts Center, for audiences with autism and other sensory sensitivities.

Horticulture for Children with Disabilities consists of six sessions, each led by Master Gardener volunteers at the Demonstration Gardens in Union County’s Watchung Reservation, in Mountainside.

Each volunteer has been trained and certified as a Master Gardener by experts with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, and they also receive sensitivity training from autism educators with Children’s Specialized Hospital.

One important feature of the program is an illustrated weekly “social story,” which participants and their families or caregivers read together in advance of each session.

The reading exercise helps prepare the children to accept a new, unfamiliar event in their weekly routine. Many families also bring a copy with them to the sessions, to help their child navigate the steps in the projects.

Autism Family Times has also played a vital role in the program’s success. The group provides trained peer mentors to offer social support for the participants, engaging them with new friends. That helps the session leaders focusing on providing one-on-one assistance when needed.

In additional to general plant care and garden experiences, the program includes special projects like terrarium planting, herb dish gardens and decoupage.

In addition to the focus on children, the Rutgers Extension and Master Gardeners also developed a specially designed eight-session Introduction to Horticultural Therapy program for all ages.

For this program, which does not require access to a garden, Master Gardeners lead horticultural therapy sessions at care facilities. Staff members at the facility also attend and learn the program, so they can continue to offer as part of their ongoing therapy programming.

For more information on Union County programs for people with disabilities, contact Margaret Heisey of the Department of Parks and Community Renewal, 908-527-4806 or

All Union County recreation events and programs are available online at, or call 908-527-4900.

Master Gardener volunteers perform many acts of community service in Union County, including management of the Demonstration Gardens. No previous experience in horticulture is required to join. For information contact Madeline Flahive at the Rutgers Extension office in Westfield, 908-654-9854 or visit the Master Gardeners online at



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