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


Gardening With Disabled Individuals

man on crutches

Michael Levenston
Executive Director City Farmer
(C) Copyright: City Farmer 1988

Using horticulture for healing has a long history. As early as 1699 Leonard Maeger, writing in the English Gardener advised his countrymen "to spend their spare time in the garden, either digging, setting out, or weeding; there is no better way to preserve your health."

Dr. Benjamin Rush, pioneer psychiatrist, and a signer of the American Declaration of Independence, declared in his time that "digging in the soil has a curative effect on the mentally ill."

Following both World War I and II, veterans' hospitals made increased use of gardening as therapy in the treatment and reeducation of disabled soldiers. Volunteers from garden clubs brought the delights and benefits of their hobby to thousands of men recovering from battle.

Today in the US and Canada hundreds of hospitals work with plants to provide a powerful form of therapy for patients with emotional and physical disabilities. There are more than 250 registered Horticultural Therapists in North America working in a wide range of settings, from nursing homes to prisons, schools to hospitals, they are trying to ease mental and physical distress and provide creative, recreational and vocational activities for people who often have very few such outlets.

Gardening with individuals with disabilities can show surprising results both in improving motor skills and in reducing stress. Twenty minutes of watering and tending plants produces visible calm.

By blending gardening and nutritional education, participants begin engaging in healthier behavior, becoming more active and improving their diets.

As a therapy, gardening is unique in that a living medium - plants - is used. Disabled people get a hands-on connection with the natural environment and life cycle. By caring for plants individuals work with a product firmly anchored in reality. Participants realize that they have an effect on something else that is living. Changes in behavior, emotional expression and reliability have occurred.

Some disabled gardeners feel a reversal of dependency when they see that they can function independently, and actually garden for themselves. This can bring about a tremendous improvement in feelings of self esteem.

By introducing horticulture to disabled individuals a new interesting hobby takes root in their lives. Group gardening activities promote social interaction. Changes in outlook take place as participants wonder what will come up next week, or what will they plant next year. Looking ahead to the future is extremely important in fostering a healthy, positive, mental state especially in seniors.

For some, a new career is a possibility. The American Horticultural Therapy Association directs a national employment project aimed at assisting horticulture employers find qualified disabled job candidates. To date 1000 people have been placed in a variety of salaried horticulture jobs.

City Farmer believes that gardening as therapy has a place in all health care facilities in British Columbia. Given the opportunity, disabled people find the activity of working with plants a joyful experience.

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 plant materials."

Horticultural Therapy: New Options for People With Disabilities

Let's Get Growing!

Horticulture Therapy

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Revised October 27, 1996

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture