Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Horticultural Therapy

New Options for People With Disabilities

helping hand

By D. B. Whyte
(C) Copyright: City Farmer 1988

"Ooh, this is delightful."

Many a visitor to Vancouver's Van Dusen Gardens has uttered such a phrase, but on a recent May afternoon the visitor was special: a young woman in a wheelchair facing the challenges of a physical disability. She is part of a unique pilot project exploring the benefits of horticulture as therapy.

Veronica Sorban is a resident of the B.C. Rehabilitation Society's George Pearson Centre for physically disabled adults and was enjoying a visit to the famous botanical gardens as a part of the latest addition to the Centre's leisure services program. Working in concert with City Farmer, the Centre has begun offering its residents a series of activities based on horticulture, ranging from tending and harvesting plants to making scented sachets.

But wait a minute: Isn't all that digging and weeding too demanding for institutionalized people?

Not at all, said Pearson's leisure services manager Kathleen Mason, who helped bring the program in to five wards in the 180-resident Centre, following a trial year of bussing to City Farmer's Ability Garden in Kitsilano. "One of the things that surprised me was how active the residents participating in the garden were... You see people stretching, people are using their eyes, their arms, their hands," Mason said, of the first time she saw the residents at work.

The concept of the horticultural therapy program is simple: Let the Centre's residents practice gardening in their own home. At the Pearson Centre, this means the residents go out onto the patios to grow flowers and vegetables in hanging baskets and raised planter boxes, which allows them to work from their wheelchairs. Often hand-tools are modified to fit special-needs hands, and, at least initially, the scope of the gardening has been kept modest. To round out the program, outings such as the trip to the Van Dusen Gardens are arranged to show people just what can be done with horticulture. A major secondary program is indoors crafts, where the residents learn to convert the garden products into items for gift giving or to brighten personal rooms.

Mason calls the program "building recreational skills," meaning it gives the residents one more activity in which to be involved. In an institution, activity patterns threaten to become tedious, so Mason took the risk of trying an innovative new program. "The range of garden and craft activities seemed fresh, a little different than what we see (in the health-care profession)" she said.

Michael Levenston, the City Farmer director who developed the program, has long been an advocate of horticulture in any form for its many virtues - fresh produce, healthy outdoor physical activity, the peace of mind which comes from nurturing growing plants, among others. He saw no reason why the disabled shouldn't garden, too.

"Everybody can garden, regardless of politics, age, wealth or background. We want to demonstrate that a disability need not be a barrier to enjoying the benefits of gardening," he asserted.

For the residents of the Pearson Centre, the benefits of horticultural therapy range from intangibles like Sorban's delight to possible improvement in functional abilities.

Assessing the program's benefit to her clients early in the project, Mason noted, "In the initial phases, we're seeing that gardening makes the institution feel more home-like. The presence of plants and flowers is improving the environment." She also pointed to "unmeasureable qualities" which work to the resident's benefit, such as fresh air, sunshine and physical activity. She suggested the residents feel a sense of accomplishment as they see the fruits of their labours mature, a sense of self-worth which is helping even staff realize just how much the residents can do for themselves.

This new feeling of self-worth, coupled with the physical therapy of performing the gardening, may even yield tangible improvements in patients' conditions. "I think by the end of the program we're going to see improvements in fine and gross motor skills," predicted Mason.

Working directly with the residents are a crew of three hired by City Farmer under an Employment & Immigration Job Development grant. With the help of Centre staff, Laurette Douziech, Dianne Petrant and Linda Lock are learning to blend the skills of a gardener with those of a therapist. They work hands-on with the residents, sometimes literally, as in the case of those with limited hand control, when the therapeutic horticultural assistant's hand will guide the resident's.

Gardening days have become something of a social event, with country music on the ghetto-blaster setting a friendly and informal mood. "It really brings the residents out of their shells," said Douziech. "One day we were playing music and everybody was singing along...whatever came out." While the sing-along may not have soothed the seedling plants, it set the tone for a remarkably harmonious day of activity.

Though smiles abound, there's still work to be done. The assistants handle the heavy jobs, but it is the residents themselves who decide what and where to plant. They also do the planting, weeding and watering, which can often involve new challenges in reaching, digging, pushing and grasping. "It's a different set of movements than they're used to, and they really have to work at it," said Lock, who couldn't resist comparing the similar growth struggles of the seeds and the residents.

"Most of us would take it for granted to do a simple task like drop a single seed into a hole in the soil. But for them, that's a major challenge," said Petrant. "Everything in the hospital is done for them. With the garden, they're out there doing it for themselves."

All of those working with the project expressed surprise at how successful it has become, beyond even their own expectations. This suggested to Levenston that the idea could be considered in other institutions, and led to the production of this handbook.

Two typical residents' views on the program are representative of those of most residents. The first is an older adult to whom gardening is an old companion, the second is the awe-struck young woman mentioned above, who has no gardening experience.

"I used to look after a garden at home before I developed my illness, so to continue here at Pearson is just exactly what I wanted to do," resident Andrew Barnes, a former fireman, said, "It gets me right back into the realm of gardening, gets me involved, it's a very interesting program."

And for Sorban. "This is more interesting than what I've been doing." She said she loves the chance to get outdoors, adding, "I go and take care of the garden every Saturday," when the horticultural assistants are off-duty.

Strolling along a path at Van Dusen Gardens in her electric wheelchair, she paused, and a gleam came to her eye. Glancing mischieviously over her shoulder, she leaned closer to confide, "I like getting dirty the best."

Gardening With Disabled Individuals

Let's Get Growing!

Horticulture Therapy

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Revised January 17, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture