Gardening with Disabilities: Horticultural Therapy

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Susan Hoysagk is a seasoned nurse who, when not busy “nursing it up,” can be found gardening, experimental cooking with fresh organic herbs and veggies from her garden, reading, writing and rearranging her yarn stash.

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.  ~Mrs. C.W. Earle, “Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden: The Classic Diary of a Victorian Lady,” 1897

Born Maria Theresa Villiers, Mrs. Earle’sbook is a delightful month-by-month account of her “wish to talk to you on paper about several subjects as they occur to me throughout one year” (p. 1). She includes seasonal gardening, health, cooking, making coffee, decorating, and many other interests laid out diary-like but chatty. She was blogging! (You can download a pdf file ofthis delightful book via Google books for free!)

Mrs. Earle has it right–at least in part. Gardening is a constant exercise of the imagination. But it is so much more and has been recognized as such even by medical professionals. Dr. Benjamin Rush (a physician not only considered as the “Father of American Psychiatry” but also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was one of the first to recognize gardening as therapeutic. Horticultural therapy–using nature as therapy–is now a profession similar to occupational therapy. It actually dates back to Rush’s time, around 1812, and has continued to grow over the many decades. The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), a nonprofit organization formed in 1973, is a “champion of barrier-free, therapeutic gardens that enable everyone to work, learn and relax in the garden.” Some of their techniques to helppeople with physical and mental disabilities include those I have blogged about–wheelchair accessible paths, raised gardens, container gardening, gardening indoors–and add adaptive tools for turning disability into ability as well as creating special sensory gardens using fragrance, texture and color. 

Salads are for more than just eating. Textures are wonderful for the visually impaired gardener.
Photo By Er.We/Courtesy Flickr.

Gardening is not just for the physically disabled; it has been shown through many studies to help with mental health disabilities. Green-care farming (or farming for health, social farming and ecotherapy) is being used in the United States and Europe. This initiative uses farming activities (including animals, plants and the landscape) as therapy to improve mental and physical health and social wellbeing. They are used for the mentally challenged, children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, children with learning disabilities and older people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, among others.Some of these care farms use organic and sustainable practices, which encourage a connection with nature and foster concern for our world while providing physical and social activities. Win-win-win! 

Gardens are also for sitting, relaxing, meditating, or just looking at the light hitting the leaves. Photo By Wonderlane/Courtesy Flickr.

Besides the act of gardening itself, being outside, being in a natural landscape, is also healing by providing beauty, peace, tranquility, solace and even a place for meditation. Look at all the public gardens in the world! Is it even possible to go to one of these places of beauty and not feel better? Having a space at home is just as important no matter how big or small. Fragrance and texture are especially important for those with visual or hearing impairments. More on that later…

Horitcultural Therapy snippets:

1879: Friends Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, buildsits first greenhouse “to enhance a long tradition of horticultural therapy.” It is believed to be the first greenhouse built in this country to be used only for the ill. 

Horticultural therapy programs were used to treat veterans returning from World War II and are currently used at some of the Veterans Administration Hospitals.


American Horticultural Therapy Association

Farming for Health

Friends Hospital

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