Nursing homes need plants, too. Select with care!

My mom, who’s 80, announced her newest project (my new assignment) a couple weeks ago.

“The patio at Nan’s nursing home is just … bleak,” she said. “There’s nothing. A concrete slab and a white fence. It needs color. I want to put some plants there, starting with a big pot with a little tree that has flowers.”

elderly man in wheelchair at Dunedin, Fla., nursing home, sitting at patio table with white umbrella surrounded by tall white privacy fence on concrete slab.

My mom, a registered nurse with an active license (and, ahem, a 2005 inductee in the Florida Nursing Hall of Fame)  really likes Cross Terrace Rehabilitation Center in Dunedin. The staff are loving and kind, and the care is good. But that patio really bothered her.

Mom’s little sister, my Aunt Nanette, moved to Cross Terrace a few months ago, despite her son’s best efforts to keep her at home. She has some chronic health problems, but the one that finally crashed his resolve was dementia. Her son, my cousin Tony, is quadriplegic, so he couldn’t really jump up and chase after her when she wandered out into the streets at night.

Aunt Nanette may have some dementia, but she’s still Nannie — very funny with a big, generous heart, and so sassy, always ready to break some rules.

Here she is in February, on a visit to Tony’s, with my niece, Melli.

NH nanny

Mom — a plant-loving non-gardener — enlisted my help to transform the patio, which is very open and sunny. I thought crape myrtle might be good for her small tree.

Last weekend we visited Duncheon’s Nursery in Land O’ Lakes to shop. It was darned cold, so a slow day, which meant we got owner Pat Duncheon’s  undivided attention for a good long time! (I love Duncheon’s because, even if you don’t get Pat, you get really knowledgeable, friendly & helpful staff. I’ve learned a lot at that nursery!)

Turns out Pat’s Mom has been living in an Alzheimer’s unit in the Midwest for about 10 years. Pat has tried to introduce plants there but, since some residents may try to eat them, you have to make sure they’re not poisonous.

Crape myrtle, he said, can be trickier in a container than you might expect. The dwarf varieties are particularly  vulnerable to pests. He recommended instead a grafted gardenia, which produces fragrant white blooms multiple times throughout the year. (Non-grafted bloom just once.)

grafted gardenia, no blooms, and arm planting a siign that says "Water Me Mon. Wed. Fri." in terra cotta colored container

We got this one, covered with buds, for $19.99. He also suggested adding a colorful annual to the bottom. Mom chose violet Calibrachoa, which should soon mound up and spill over the container sides a bit.

He told us it needs water every couple days for the first few weeks and should do fine with once-a-week watering after that.

Someone had tried to color up the patio with plants in the past. There were a few containers with dead and dying color. We found a stubborn Mexican petunia putting out new sprouts amidst lots of dead stuff in a broken pot. We put it in a new pot with fresh soil and WATER!

broken terra cotta pot, pot in back with Mexican petunia looking unhealthy and bag of Miracle-Gro potting soil

And, since I  just happened to have a couple little bare-root crape myrtles a friend had given me from their Arbor Day Foundation goodie bag, we figured we’d go ahead and give Mom’s original idea a try.

terra cotta planters clustered against a white fence on a nursing home patio. gardenia without blooms, small crape myrtle, unidentified small tree, small Mexican petunia

That’s the little crape myrtle in the big yellow pot. There was also a healthy looking small tree in a corner, so I added it to the group to make more of a focal point.

My plan is to add a bunch of larval and nectar butterfly plants and see if we can’t get a drama going on this patio! I asked Robert Bornstein, a horticultural therapist who works at nursing homes in Fort Lauderdale, for non-poisonous suggestions.

Here’s what he said:

“I don’t recommend poisonous plants due to the liability issues, but if you must use them — like scarlet milkweed, the only larval food for monarchs — you have to be sure  to place them in locations where casual visitors can’t easily reach them.”

Milkweed is easy to grow from seed, and inexpensive to buy.

“Keep the pot close enough for the residents to see the butterflies but far enough away so that they will not eat the plant. Or put them in an area where residents will visit only with supervision,” he says.

Same for lantana.

“I love the firebush. I also use native wild coffee but be cautious,” he adds. Wild coffee is another that should be in a supervised area.

He recommends this guide by the late plant guru Julia Morton.