The benefits of gardens and gardening have been touted for centuries—literally. But with the arrival of Horticultural Therapy in World War II, scientists began probing what made gardening and contact with the natural world healing for so many.
Horticultural therapy meets diverse needs
As the documented benefits of dirt and plant time grew, so did the inclusion of gardening as part of therapeutic programs for increasingly diverse groups of people: not only wounded veterans, but people in hospitals or rehabilitation centers, adults with addiction issues, seniors struggling with the effects of aging, children with cognitive challenges, and teenagers with behavior problems. The list keeps growing. Regardless of age, cognitive, physical, sensory, behavioral, emotional, social or other factors, it’s clear now that gardening is more than just a pleasant pastime. It helps people be healthy, happy, and productive.
Elements of success
Regardless of the challenges facing an individual, or the person’s age, a successful gardening experience includes these basic elements:
- A safe, accessible gardening space. Garden beds should be at comfortable heights for the gardener, whether this is in-ground or raised beds, containers of various heights, or trellised gardens. The space does not have to be large. It can be situated on a patio or porch or at the edge of a driveway. For those confined indoors, it can be space on a window sill or under a bedside grow light.
- Appropriate tools for basic garden tasks. Once a problem, finding tools for all ages and challenges is now a matter of locating sources. Tools should be: (a) lightweight; (b) have appropriate handle lengths; (c) adapted for individual needs; (d) ergonomically compatible with the gardener’s needs; and (e) the gardener’s tool of choice. Occupational Therapists or Physical Therapists can be very helpful in evaluating tool use.
- Clearly define and time garden tasks. Keeping garden tasks very specific (dead-heading, planting seeds, and so on)—and completing one task at a time—helps the gardener to focus on the plants. For those with memory challenges, short attention spans or distractibility, adding additional cues with a timer or task cards can be helpful in keeping the gardener from becoming confused or frustrated.
- Honor the gardener’s preferences. Respecting the gardener’s decisions about what to grow, what tool to use, or the amount of support needed increases the gardener’s feelings of independence, self-confidence, and competence. A fourth grader in one of our school gardens was the most enthusiastic gardener in his class although he was losing both his vision and muscular strength. When asked why he liked coming to the garden so much, he said, “Because I can do stuff by myself!” He flashed a mischievous smile and added, “Well, mostly by myself. Sometimes I have a little help.”
If you keep these four elements in mind, the gardening experience can be safe, productive, and satisfying regardless of the specific challenges the gardener is facing.
NCSU Horticultural Therapy Programs
American Horticultural Therapy Association
Article written by Mary Hugenschmidt, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.