The Healing Power of Gardening

There’s something about being surrounded by nature that’s especially healing. So it makes sense that gardening can aid in rehabilitation.

Horticultural therapy uses gardening and plants to promote wellbeing. It’s different from hobby gardening—the kind that we do in our backyard or as a way to relax—in that horticultural therapy is goal-oriented with defined outcomes that are facilitated by a horticulture therapist. Patients who opt to participate in this type of therapy may be recovering from conditions including stroke, spinal cord injuries, brain injury, concussion or sports injuries.

Horticultural therapy offers a range of benefits. Physical benefits include improving fine motor coordination, balance and overall strength and mobility. Emotional benefits include increased self-esteem, stability and accountability. Rehabilitation patients often feel a loss of independence during their recovery because they rely on clinicians for help with everything from getting out of bed to showering to walking down the hall. But with gardening, they become the caregiver of plants, allowing them to reclaim some of their independence.

During a typical horticultural therapy session, patients work at standing gardening beds, which improves balance, body mechanics and stability. It also requires them to practice the proper technique to lift items from a floor or table to the standing bed. Horticultural therapy also offers an opportunity to sharpen cognition and memory by engaging the senses. For example, an interactive gardening session that requires planting basil might lead to a patient recalling the smell of meatballs cooking in their childhood kitchen. These types of memories are helpful for encouraging conversation, socialization and overall healing.

Gardening has other health benefits, too. Maintaining a garden requires you to use all of the major muscle groups, like your arms, legs, shoulders and core. It can help build strength, burn calories and can help you manage stress by spending time outdoors. If you’re interested in gardening, here are a few tips to help you get started on a garden of your own (no green thumb required!):

  • Find the right space – Look for a spot in your yard that gets plenty of sunlight, ideally five hours or more. It’s also smart to select a site that’s easily accessible. For example, plant herbs on the patio so they’re easy to harvest when you’re cooking in the kitchen.
  • Create a raised bed – This helps ease the strain of gardening on your body, specifically your back. Raised garden beds are available at many gardening specialty stores and local home improvement stores.
  • Build a good foundation – Prepping your soil is your number one priority before planting. Start with finding out your soil type. Loam is considered the ideal as it contains a balance of clay, sand and silt. If your soil is a different type, you can add organic matter – such as compost – to make your soil more balanced. Consider growing your garden without herbicides or pesticides to increase sustainability and reduce impact on the environment.
  • Find a water source – It can be helpful to station your garden near your hose or a door so that you can easily get and refill water. The further your garden is from a water source, the less likely you might be to regularly water it. To increase sustainability, you might want to consider ways you can reuse water – for example, collecting rain to water your garden.
  • Pick plants you enjoy – If you’re growing vegetables, choose ones you want to eat. This will keep you more passionate about maintaining and caring for your plants. The fun part about gardening is you have so many options – and you can switch it up with each season.
  • Consider companion planting – This gardening method allows you to grow more things in a smaller space and encourages the success of different varieties of plants. For example, tomatoes grow great next to basil. Peas and carrots are another pair that thrives together.
  • Practice good ergonomics – Gardening can be hard on your body if you’re not careful. Here are a few ways to ease the strain:
    • Get up for regular walks and stretching so you’re not bending over, kneeling or sitting for too long.
    • Avoid overreaching or twisting when doing tasks such as pulling weeds.
    • Select gardening tools that are the right size for you and ones that are specially designed to be ergonomically correct.
    • Use a gardening stool or knee pads to ease the stress on your knees.
  • Take care of your skin – Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside to garden and reapply it every two hours as needed. It’s also a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants as well as a wide-brimmed hat to further protect your skin. Wear gloves when gardening to protect your hands from cuts and scrapes.

Remember: gardening is meant to be fun! It’s a leisure activity that can help you improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, and deliver fresh produce and herbs to your table. From helping our patients reach their rehab goals to helping our communities feel more comfortable in the garden, Bryn Mawr Rehab is proud to promote the health benefits of gardening.

To learn more about horticultural therapy, make an appointment with a Bryn Mawr Rehab clinician or call 866-225-5654.

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