Garden Forever
Horticulture Therapy - Jerry Filipski

For many of us that garden we don't normally stop and wonder what it is about gardening that makes us feel good or enjoy it so. We are simply grateful that it does and go about our work. There are others who have not experienced the joy of gardening in their lives or may have had it removed from their lives by an ailment or a disability.

Horticultural therapy is an innovative treatment method using plants and plant-related activities to improve the social, educational, psychological, and physical adjustment of an individual, thus improving his/her body, mind and spirit. Horticultural therapy has been used to improve mobility, balance, endurance, socialization and memory skills.

Muscles can be strengthened and coordination improved. The bottom line is that planting a flower may not seem very therapeutic, but research has proven that horticulture therapy helps people heal and relax according to Stacey Hager at Kansas State University.

This column was inspired by a wonderful book written by Lynn Dennis, a local horticultural therapist. In his book 'Garden for Life', Horticulture for People with Special Needs, Mr. Dennis explains how to set up a horticultural therapy program in detail. He suggests creative activities, tools and other considerations and in general makes one feel compelled to become involved in such a program. Although the book was intended for use as a manual by professionals and volunteers, it is written in a manner making it suitable for the disabled gardener, for example, to use when planning their garden.

Groups for whom the therapy has proven to be beneficial include people who are physically disabled, mentally ill, developmentally disabled, elderly, substance abusers, public offenders and socially disadvantaged. By caring for plants individuals work with a product firmly anchored in reality. The people using the program get a hands-on connection with nature and the cycle of life. The participants realize they have an effect on something else that is living, that they are important.

Some disabled gardeners feel a reversal of dependency when they see they can function independently, and actually garden for themselves. This brings about a large boost in self esteem. Changes in outlook take place as the participants look forward to what will come up next week, what they will plant next year or plan what they need to do in their garden.

Looking ahead to the future is extremely important in fostering a healthy, positive mental state especially in seniors according to the 'City Farmer', published by Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture. Gene Rothert of the Chicago Botanic Gardens concisely sums up the job of providing a horticultural therapy service in three parts, "Adapt the garden, adapt the gardener, and adapt the plants." This is one aspect Mr. Dennis addresses so well in his book as he lists and shows specialized tools for use by disabled individuals and recommends the right plants for the program.

My other inspiration, while researching this subject, was provided through the seniors at Strathcona Place Seniors Residence. The residence has its own garden program coordinated in large part due to the efforts of Wayne and Betty McColman with plenty of support from Rachel Young and Olga Palichuk.

There are 18 garden plots available at the residence, each one being 12'x12' in dimension. The management of the residence does the rototilling and soil improvements but the seniors do the rest. The plots are assigned by draw to individual seniors to do with what they may. The plots contain plants ranging from vegetables, with tomatoes being most popular,and flowers to oriental vegetables.

Gardening techniques, new plants are exchanged during the socializing that takes place in and around the plots. This then is not only a gardening endeavor but also a promotion of the exchange of ideas and very much a learning process. There are currently 12 seniors manning plots.

Wayne also looks after the on site greenhouse as well as coordinating the planting and maintenance of the residence'sflower borders. Management cuts and trims the lawn and maintains the trees. The borders are all planted by volunteer seniors from the residence. Funding for the plants and seeds is provided by a joint effort of the Strathcona Seniors Residence Tenant Advisory Board and the Strathcona Management Agency that runs the residence. Funds from the advisory board are matched by the agency.

The importance of this program is echoed in the words of one resident, "If my garden was taken away, that would be it for me." Wayne says that " the gardening is therapeutic, not only to admire the beauty of the flowers and plants but it provides activity." This activity draws some residents out of their shells and gets them involved in the responsibility of maintaining the plants.

The people involved in the program are dedicated. Olga was responsible for rejuvenating some old abandoned beds. As Wayne says, "she knows how to use a shovel, that's for sure." Rachel is a problem for Wayne, she is constantly bringing him new plants, when Wayne laments that the beds are full Rachel reminds him that there is always room for one more, so Wayne dutifully finds a place.

Age has no place here, they are all too busy worrying about whether this petunia will survive or when that snapdragon will bloom. The entire spirit of volunteering and pride in their home seems to be the motivating force behind their enthusiasm as well as a true love for gardening. Wayne, who was a long haul trucker before suffering a back problem was not a gardener until 10 years ago. Now you can't seem to get him away from it.

I hope that this article may have generated some interest in our professional care givers or even home care givers who never thought they could help a loved one through gardening.

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Horticulture Therapy is a copyrighted article by the author, Jerry Filipski , who has kindly given Garden Forever permission to publish it on our website. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of Jerry Filipski is strictly forbidden.