Let Nature Nurture

Reaping the benefits of horticulture therapy in your own backyard

Article Highlights:

Freelance writers Barbara and Jim Twardowski explore how people with neuromuscular disease can reap the benefits of horticulture therapy in their own backyard.

by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, RN on April 21, 2015 - 9:15am

Quest Spring 2015

When your mother told you to “stop and smell the roses,” it may have been more than sweet advice. According to the American Horticulture Therapy Association, a professional organization that provides certification for horticulture therapists, there is a growing awareness of the benefits humans enjoy when exposed to plants and gardens. Proponents and practitioners cite research showing that horticulture therapy can enhance health and well-being by decreasing stress, improving one’s immune system and alleviating depression — all by planting seeds, enjoying nature and even decorating one’s environment with flowers and plants.

Horticulture activities are becoming increasingly mainstream, too, playing a role in the treatment programs at many health care, rehabilitation and residential settings to benefit individuals with disabilities or diseases, including neuromuscular disease. Communities are seeing a surge in therapeutic gardens, and many public gardens are offering horticulture therapy programs.  

Some programs are designed for groups of individuals who share a common diagnosis, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Others are tailored to the needs and mobility issues of each participant. For example, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay provides the latter option for its group therapy sessions, in which participants grow and harvest herbs and vegetables. Classes are in held in a lush setting replete with edible and aromatic plants as well as wheelchair-friendly features, like wide and level paths, raised flower beds, railings and vertical gardens.

But if you don’t live near a botanical garden, you can still get close to nature right in your own backyard, experts say. Gardens that can be frequently accessed are best.

“Because most neuromuscular diseases are progressive, I do a lot of counseling on how to garden on a smaller scale — there are ways to adapt nearly every part of the gardening process,” says Amber Ward, an occupational therapist with the MDA/ALS Center at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.

Individuals with neuromuscular diseases who progressively lose strength, general mobility or both, need to adjust how they garden. Someone who is used to gardening an acre may mourn the loss of that activity and the joy of sharing his or her flowers and vegetables with friends. But Ward recommends embracing the pleasures and therapeutic benefits of a smaller-scale garden.

Keeping in mind that you should always first consult your MDA clinic team to establish and understand options for gardening based on your own mobility needs, here are some starter ideas to flex your green thumb:

  • Think big about small gardens. Focus on a manageable batch of plants that require minimal maintenance — not much watering or weeding. Perennials, which come back every season, are a good choice.
  • Find your comfort zone. Consider ergonomic or adaptive gardening tools (see “Gardening Gear” sidebar above) to make tasks easier.
  • Experiment with stand-up gardens. This is a great option for those who cannot get out in a yard since plants grow on a rolling cart and can be cared for from a standing or sitting position.
  • Plant an herb garden. If you use a wheelchair, plant raised beds or use containers that can be placed on outdoor tables or windowsills.
  • Make a terrarium. These small gardens inside a clear container stay indoors. Use soil, moss, gravel and peat moss to design a miniature world of hardy houseplants.
  • Learn how to propagate plants. Some studies show spider plants can remove toxins from the air in your home, and the “baby” plants can be transplanted and given away to friends.
  • Make a topiary. Using pliable wire, create a topiary frame and transplant an ivy to the new pot. Train the ivy to conform to the shape you created.
  • Plant a fruit tree. Pluck and share your harvest with friends and neighbors. For those who have a low tolerance for standing, plant tomatoes instead; use a large pot (24–36 inches wide and equally high) and peat moss or coir, which is lighter weight than soil.
  • Bring nature indoors. Take a flower-arranging class or follow instructions by watching a YouTube video.
  • Get social. Consult local resource guides and services to discover nearby gardening programs.

"And if you can’t get your hands in the dirt there still are ways to enjoy nature. Take a walk or ride in a car through neighborhoods and see what is blooming. Visit a public garden or park; most are wheelchair accessible,” Ward says. “Even if you are under hospice care, get outdoors and get some fresh air. Feeling the sunshine on your face can really brighten the spirit.” 

Barbara Kreski, an occupational therapist who oversees the horticulture therapy program at the Chicago Botanic Garden, echoes that sentiment: “Time spent in nature is stress-reducing. Gardens, which are cultivated nature, tend to be beneficial because they absorb our attention, they encourage us to interact with them, and sometimes that means getting more movement or increasing our level of physical activity.

“Sometimes for people who are the receivers of increasing amounts of care, it is very nice to be in the caregiver role instead of the receiving end,” adds Kreski, who also holds a master’s degree in health science with a concentration in neuroscience. “When you tend to a plant, it responds and that is very gratifying.

Here are a few of the many tools available that may make gardening easier for those with disabilities:

The OXO Good Grips Garden Scissors allow you to apply the strength of the whole hand — not just fingers — when snipping flowers from the garden.

The Gardner Kneeler Seat from Lewis Tools doubles as a kneeler or bench; its handles provide support to help those who have difficulty getting up from the ground.

Peta’s Easi-Grip Garden Tools are made to provide a comfortable, ergonomic grip, keeping the hand and wrist in a neutral, stress-free position. Trowels, hoes and cultivators also are available in long-reach extended forms.

Consult the following online resources to find public gardens, parks and botanical gardens near you.

  • The National Gardening Association and American Public Gardens Association have a handy “Public Gardens Locator” to help find gardens near your home or when you travel. 
  • The Nature Conservancy’s family-friendly Nature Rocks site includes a “Nature Finder” tool to locate age-appropriate activities for kids.
  • The Therapeutic Landscapes Network offers a database of information on therapeutic gardens, restorative landscapes, healing gardens and wellness gardens.

Barbara Twardowski has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease and uses a power wheelchair. Jim, her husband, is a registered nurse. The couple lives in Mandeville, La., and writes about accessible travel, assistive technology and related issues.

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