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.


  1. What a wonderful and giving idea. I too have a bare patio and being new to Florida this gives me ideas on what to plant. Thank you!

    • So glad to have helped, Rachel! One tip: When I first started with containers on my patio, I’d buy smallish ones because they’re cheaper. But lots of small ones tend to look like clutter. Go ahead and splurge on a couple really huge ones. You’ll be glad you did! (Home Goods has the best prices on beautiful pots, and they’re getting a lot in now for spring. The giant ones are $50.)

  2. Laura Frazier says:

    How nice Penny, really. Brought back bittersweet memories of bringing my mother plants to admire on her patio at Brandon Health & Rehab. We went through a half-dozen potted plants that were always watered just fine, but for some reason withered and waned… Come to find out, my mom, in an effort to take care of them herself, had been wheeling herself over to the plants and pouring her ever-present travel mug of iced tea into them. Not good LOL

    • Love this story, Laura!! But, since we know the apple don’t fall far from the tree, let me just say for the record, magarita dregs will NOT make your plants want to do the Macarena, OK?
      You know, even if your mom was killing her plants with iced tea, wheeling herself over to water them probably gave her a nice sense of purpose and the good feeling we get from taking care of something. So, you did good. :)

  3. Love this idea, Penny! I can’t wait to see how this great project progresses. Thanks for doing it! I know the residents will enjoy it.

    • Thank you, Mia! Knowing I need to post updates should keep me true to the cause :) (Yes, I’m totally inspired to help, but sometimes I need that extra nudge to stay on top of things.) I plan to post updates, and Robert Bornstein — the horticultural therapist I quoted at the end, who I met on Facebook — has turned me on to some other great sources of info for non-toxic butterfly plants, so I’m psyched. I would LOVE to see this patio alive with butterflies and residents checking for cats and chrysalises.

  4. Laura Barber says:

    Loved this post! Since the milkweed sounded a bit worrisome, how about a cassia tree for the sulphur butterflies? Takes up space, has beautiful flowers and should thrive in a large pot. The Gulf fritillary butterflies love the passion vine but when it’s not flourishing, it’s not really attractive. Also takes up much real estate as it must climb and climb!

  5. Thank you, Laura!! I’m definitely doing cassia! It’s seed time and I’ve spotted several nice-sized volunteers already growing. (Pot ’em up!) I LOVE the sulfurs because they’re so cheerful and into aerobatics. Plus, the cassia is both larval and nectar. I could use some kind of vine, but I’d have to do trellises on the fence — it’s that almost smooth, PVC style. Nothing for little tendrils to get a grip on. More ideas more than welcome!
    (I just have to do milkweed. The monarchs are so easy, so fun, and they need help! I’ll just warn the staff.)

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