Gardening can be healing therapy

by Lori Goldstein

Becoming a Master Gardener wasn’t on Maggie Bruno’s five- or ten-year life plan.  Yet that is what she decided to do after two years’ rehabilitation from a mild brain injury sustained in a car accident.  In 2015 Maggie, a Morrisville resident, enrolled in the one-year Master Gardener training program in Mercer County. The curriculum followed “The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook” from The University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The standard for all Master Gardeners throughout the United States. The course focuses horticultural practices. Besides the academic aspect, the practical course study included maintaining The Master Gardener’s of Mercer County garden and diagnosing and solving homeowner’s myriad of problems through the Master Gardener’s helpline. Maggie logged in over 1000 volunteer hours and found this to be most rewarding.

You might say her skill as a botanical sleuth was a natural extension of her prior career, when she serviced clients of the Fortune 500 company, Chemsearch, and won awards for opening the greatest number of new accounts for a new employee.   Maggie could solve any problem relating to the industrial lubricant products she sold by asking her client pertinent questions. She tried to resume her position; however, her executive thinking and auditory skills were impaired due to the head injury, making it difficult for her to even converse with clients for more than 20 minutes.

Maggie spent a year at the renown Moss Rehab in Philadelphia and another at ReMed in Bryn Mawr two years later after continued difficulties persisted. At ReMed, she was diagnosed with severe vestibular neuritis. In other words, she was unable to process any tactile response from her fingers or toes.  This caused dizziness, nausea, and headache constantly.  Fortunately, a vestibular specialist visited her house three times a week and helped her recuperate with a variety of exercises.  Maggie also had to deal with depression, an unfortunate by-product of her condition and has learned the necessity of proper medication to keep her emotionally stable and prevent her from spirally into a deep depressive state. 

When Maggie was a child, she had her own garden; she knew she had a “green thumb.” Luckily her diagnostic and analytic skills were intact, and her BS in Biology from Villanova University gave her the foundation for her new goal of becoming a Master Gardener.  The physical nature of gardening was now a more suitable work and career path but most of all gardening would allow her mind to heal.

After rehabilitation therapy, Maggie bought a house with a garden, that she was continually changed.  She also started to help her neighbor reconfigure her landscape and eventually realized that gardening was her new passion. Even though Maggie felt she had the skills and knowledge she decided to refresh her skills and become a Master Gardener.  Maggie says it’s strange that “With all the knowledge of plant sciences under my belt…I didn’t know that I would progress into what I am doing now.  You always start for a reason and end up somewhere else.”

Maggie currently assists 10 elderly or physically disabled people in their gardens.  “I like to work alongside them, according to what their needs are and give them answers to their questions.”   She stands by some basic gardening principles.  Trees need to be pruned just as humans cut their hair.  Soil is the key to everything: “I’m very keen on augmenting the soil with organic nutrients only—manure, mushroom or lobster compost.” (Maggie makes her own compost.) “You have to dig up and aerate the soil…so that the good insects will take care of the bad ones to balance the ecosystem. Weeding is tedious but much better than herbicides.”

To Maggie, weeding is not tedious: “It relaxes my mind and gives me a sense of satisfaction when I’m done. Gardening has improved my life 100 percent.”

From April through November, three days a week, is Maggie’s prime gardening season. She can work four hours per day. The day before she organizes the job in small blocks, making a list of chores or a plan ahead of time. “The key is knowing what you’re capable of doing and accepting that.” Sometimes she does basic chores such as weeding, mulching, and watering; other times she may complete a complex landscape plan or drainage issue.

At least one day of the week, sometimes two, Maggie pursues her other passion: golfing.  Maggie’s the only woman in a nine-hole league with 18 teams. She likes the sport because it’s great exercise that demands focus and concentration. The more you use your mind, the more your mind will learn to be used.

In regard to the unforeseen path her life has taken, Maggie has an apt analogy. “Life is like a puzzle. It’s all put together nicely, and one day you have this accident, and all the pieces fall to the ground. All the pieces are there, but the problem is it’s not the same puzzle. It doesn’t go back together the same way.” Maggie would like to see more public awareness of the unseen consequences of head injury. Certainly, traumatic brain injuries have received more attention in the past few years due to the professional sports world. For an individual like herself, she recognizes the need for a mental health advocate to navigate the economic, physical, and emotional burdens placed on a person with head injury.

PHOTO CAP: Maggie Bruno

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