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Sowing Seeds of Hope

Rotary International and Rutgers Launch Enabling Gardens Initiative
Photo: ikki Graf, farm research supervisor at Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse, delivers presentation on plant collection at kick-off event. Photo by: Dave Smela, RCE of Middlesex County.

Nikki Graf, farm research supervisor at Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse, delivers presentation on plant collection at kick-off event. Photo by: Dave Smela, RCE of Middlesex County.

In celebration of National Horticultural Therapy Week from March 18-24, 2012, Rotary International District 7510 and Rutgers University joined forces and resources to launch an enabling garden initiative in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties.

Enabling gardens promote the benefits of working with plants to all, irrespective of age, physical, mental, emotional, social, or other limitations. The "Rotary-Rutgers: Growing Lives One Seed at a Time" project is a Central New Jersey initiative in which five pilot sites across the counties have been chosen to host and implement enabling garden spaces. The first such garden to be started under the project got underway on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus on March 23 at the Floriculture Greenhouses on the George H. Cook Campus.

This pilot gardening event followed a December 2011 kickoff event, also at the Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouses, and served as the launch of the collaborative project. The launch was major step on the road to realizing the dream held by Laura DePrado, Rotary International member and co-coordinator of the joint Rotary-Rutgers project.

DePrado's vision for the enabling gardens initiative was first realized while enrolled as a continuing education student in Rutgers Horticultural Therapy certificate program in fall 2010 conducted by professor Joel Flagler, department head and agricultural resource management agent of Bergen County. Over several months, DePrado continued to build consensus with Rutgers and Rotary International for the initiative. Following brain surgery and a subsequent medical procedure that led to months of hospitalization in 2011, DePrado was determined to mobilize the effort, without further delay.

"My challenges only made me realize how valuable this initiative could be for anyone with a limitation," said DePrado. "We are all on the spectrum of having or experiencing a limitation, temporarily or permanently, at any stage of life; it's just a matter of degrees," she added. She uses her passion to share with everyone the value of connecting with plants. DePrado owns Final Touch Plantscaping in Somerset County, specializing in customized activities, programs, and therapeutic landscapes.

Photo: L-R: NJ Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Al Murray; NJ Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman; Laura DePrado; Nick Polanin; and Executive Dean Robert M. Goodman, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences

L-R: NJ Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Al Murray; NJ Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman; Laura DePrado; Nick Polanin; and Executive Dean Robert M. Goodman, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences

During this same time, Rotary International District Governor Megan Jones-Holt approached DePrado to indentify a worthwhile project for District 7510. "It felt like the perfect opportunity to mobilize the two long-standing institutions under one umbrella to launch this initiative," explained DePrado.

"I knew that Rutgers would be an ideal partner in this effort through its already well-established expertise in areas like consumer horticulture, agriculture and plant science, soil sciences, landscape design, and volunteer development," added DePrado.

An enabling garden can be any size from a customized raised planter or planters to a larger space, either indoors or outdoors, and existing gardens can be modified to allow for maximum access. The availability of lightweight adaptable, adjustable, and interchangeable tools can also enhance the experience of gardening for those with physical or other limitations.

A Rotary leader in District 7510 and a certified Horticultural Therapist, Deprado threw her passion and energy into creating the Rotary Rutgers project. It has taken shape and gained community collaborators across the five Central New Jersey counties.

At the time of the March gardening event, Rutgers Master Gardeners Program statewide coordinator Nick Polanin, agricultural and resource management agent of Somerset County and co-coordinator of the initiative, confirmed that there were five pilot sites, with additional sites in Mercer and Somerset counties pending. These confirmed enabling garden pilot sites include:

  • Middlesex County: Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouses in New Brunswick
  • Hunterdon County: Hunterdon County Arboretum in Lebanon
    Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Rt. 12 County Complex in Flemington
  • Somerset County: The Carrier Clinic in Montgomery
  • Union County: Community Access Unlimited group home in Roselle

As a complement to the gardening experience for participants at the March 23 event, Michele Bakacs, agricultural and resource management agent for Middlesex and Union counties, conducted two sessions on how to make a rain barrel. Nikki Graf, research farm supervisor at the Floriculture Greenhouses, conducted the planting sessions at several raised beds that were newly constructed with the aim of allowing free access to gardeners.

To learn more on this initiative, visit the Rotary Enabling Gardens website.

View images of the pilot garden event on March 23 at the Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouses at the Gannett News photo gallery.


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences