Garden therapy

When I was a kid, I never would have imagined that gardening
would be something I would enjoy.
My grandparents had an extensive vegetable garden, but I tried
to avoid helping out with the actual gardening, preferring instead
to do cartwheels between the planter boxes or dig in the dirt in
search of Native American artifacts.
When I was a kid, I never would have imagined that gardening would be something I would enjoy.

My grandparents had an extensive vegetable garden, but I tried to avoid helping out with the actual gardening, preferring instead to do cartwheels between the planter boxes or dig in the dirt in search of Native American artifacts.

My parents gardened a little, but most of my involvement with that included hours spent weeding, moving bricks, raking, sweeping and sneezing from horrible hay fever. I was pretty sure I would be happy to be grown up and have absolutely no garden duties, except maybe caring for an herb garden on my windowsill.

But a couple of years ago, I was struck by the desire to grow my own fruits and vegetables. Despite a couple years of miserable failure, that urge has persisted, and now, I have the most successful garden of my short gardening career.

And the most surprising thing, besides the fact that I’m actually growing something, is that I really enjoy it. I even look forward to heading out to putter around the garden after a long day at work. It’s therapeutic.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. In fact, what’s known as “horticultural therapy” is a growing field in which a person trained in the practice – anyone from a nurse to an occupational therapist to a garden enthusiast – uses gardening to connect with and help people in nursing homes, hospitals, vocational centers, schools and even prisons.

“It’s people and plants working together,” said Karen Talbot, a horticultural therapist who teaches an adaptive horticultural therapy class at Diablo Valley College. “It’s adapting the ability to garden and work with plants for people with special needs.”

The practice defies pigeonholing. It can be active, with people working in the garden, or passive, with people just being in the garden, and examples of therapeutic gardens range from hospital to school to community gardens. The idea is that being in the garden, especially growing and caring for plants, can enhance well-being by helping people physically, psychologically and socially.

The therapy’s benefits include exercise, developing motor skills, improving self-esteem, giving people a chance to work together in a group and teaching new skills, such as decision-making and independent learning, Talbot said.

The gardens used for the therapy vary depending on the group for which they are designed. For instance, Talbot said, gardens for seniors may be memory gardens, filled with plants the seniors had when they were younger. Prison gardens may focus on getting excess energy out, having prisoners do lots of digging and mulching, and healing gardens tend to have plants that appeal to the different senses.

“The basic thing is the sense of being with nature,” Talbot said. “The idea is that anyone can really garden and get benefits from it and enjoy it. There’s no age barrier, no education barrier. It’s something that everyone should have an ability to do and feel positive as a result.”

Every evening, I get my own little dose of garden therapy. I highly recommend it.

To learn more about horticultural therapy, visit the Web site of the Horticultural Therapy Education Program at www.karentalbot.com or contact the Cabrillo College Horticulture Department at (831) 479-6100. The American Horticultural Therapy Association, at 1-800-634-1603 or www.ahta.org, lists chapters of the organization around the country, as well as schools where those interested may learn more.

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