• Emily Gilmore

Gardens, Art, and Mental Health with Horticulturalist Dustin Waller

Although his job title doesn’t specify it, horticulturalist Dustin Waller is an artist of sorts. His African Forest exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is a transformative experience for the typical Floridian guest. The tall grasses rattle in the breeze and the shades of greens and browns create a soothing undertone. It isn’t hard to imagine you’re in Africa, especially with the Colobus monkeys hooting in the background. Waller describes this as “creating an image that people can physically walk through.”

“A lot of people think (horticulture) is studying plants, that’s botany,” Waller says. “Horticulture is the growing and maintaining of plants.” He is part of a team of 14 people that take care of 92 acres of plants at the park.

“Every day I walk through my area first thing and see if any plants were destroyed, if any are sad. And then (I) maintain the aesthetic that is expected within the garden,” he said. “But then I might have to do other things like plant something or get in an enclosure. So, it varies, which is really nice. It’s not like I’m stuck at the same desk all day not doing what I want.”

Waller credits his mother for his love of gardening. He fondly talks about the plastic gardening tools she gave him as a child, which allowed him to explore gardening and foster the love for it that continued throughout his life.

“I wanted to do art all through school. I kind of realized in high school that I was a little weird, I was creative,” Waller recalls. “I thought everyone was like that. But then I figured I loved plants so much and it was more necessary. I didn’t want to be a starving artist, I wanted to provide for my family. So that’s kind of where it went. And it’s been a perpetual thing for like 20 years. (This job) definitely mixes everything I’ve always believed in.”

While Waller uses his creative background to make gardens that could certainly be called a work of art, he prefers gardening that is useful. He’s able to channel this passion in the second part of his job, planting for the animals at the zoo. He pointed out several newly planted blueberry trees inside an enclosure that had already been raided by gorillas seeking amusement.

“(The plants are) also really important for the animals. It’s one of the only zoos that we try to incorporate the natural environment with the enclosure, so they feel more where they’re from. We try to replicate the environment in which they come from.”

Working firsthand with nature allows Waller to see the connections in the environment that we might otherwise miss. This experience gives him a unique perspective. “(Working with nature) allows me to respect everything as a whole. Because we aren’t separate from nature. Like, I don’t want to litter because I value where I live and the environment and the other things that share that environment.”

In addition to personally seeing the effects of nature, Waller also believes in the positive impacts nature has on all humans. “It affects people’s minds,” he says. “It brings them solitude. It’s very peaceful and calming. They could be having the worst day ever and just take a walk through a garden. They don’t understand it, but they feel better.”

Research and numerous studies support Waller’s theory. A 2005 study titled “Post-occupancy evaluation of healing gardens in a pediatric cancer center” showed that gardens in hospitals have the ability reduce the emotional stress and pain of patients using them. In 1991 Roger Ulrich showed the correlation between lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression due to nature in his study, “Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments.”

UNF Psychology, Environmental Studies and Leadership student Dalton Nordquist plans to apply these benefits of nature to therapy work. He describes nature therapy as, “a new branch of counseling and therapy that implements the outdoors in the general counseling session.” Therapy can be conducted in gardens, nature trails, backpacking trips, like Dalton plans to lead, or any outdoor setting. The point, according to Nordquist, is that “a lot of people feel more comfortable sitting outside, sitting in an open environment without walls, ceilings, or no windows.”

Recognizing the effects of nature doesn’t require a background in psychology, however. Sammy Horton, a Multimedia Productions student at UNF, explains the feelings he gets from being outside. “I feel more comfortable outside than I do inside. The air is fresher, it’s more relaxed I feel. I’ve just always kind of felt a sort of place, being outside, being in the real world. I’ve felt that’s kind of where I should be.”

Waller's advice for feeling said benefits? "Get outside. Find a friend, or whatever, by yourself, with your dog. Just get outside and explore."

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