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Why Say “YES” To Gardening

In addition to simply being “fun” gardening has many health and therapeutic benefits for adults of all ages. It is a favorite activity for many seniors. If you have an older parent, you should encourage them to remain active in a hobby like gardening. It is:

  • An enjoyable form of exercise
  • Increases levels of physical activity and helps mobility and flexibility
  • Encourages use of all motor skills
  • Improves endurance and strength
  • Helps prevent diseases like osteoporosis
  • Reduces stress levels and promotes relaxation
  • Provides stimulation and interest in nature and the outdoors
  • Improves well-being as a result of social interaction
  • Can provide nutritious, home-grown produce.

Garden spaces, tools and equipment can be modified or adapted for all levels of mobility and strength, such as indoor gardens, using vertical planting to make garden beds accessible for planting and harvesting, raising beds to avoid bending and stooping, and finding light, adaptive tools and equipment.

Activities associated with cultivating a garden that seniors enjoy include:

  • Digging
  • Planting
  • Watering
  • Harvesting food and flowers Sensory enjoyment – smelling, touching, looking, listening, remembering
  • Crafts and hobbies associated with plants
  • Food preparation and eating own grown produce.

The column below was prepared for KHN by Jack Carman, a nationally recognized expert in designing Therapeutic Gardens for senior residences to meet older adults’ physical, psychological and social needs.

Raised Planter Gardens

As we age, we sometimes experience physical limitations in our daily activities. Simple bending, reaching and pulling can for some require the assistance of a cane, wheel chair or walker. Imagine how frustrating it is when an older adult is unable to enjoy a hobby they have participated in throughout their lives. Elevating the planting surface makes it possible for people to continue to enjoy gardening. And, for some, this is a passion. The size, shape and style of raised planters currently available are extensive limitless. You can also make your own, which can help to increase the fun of gardening.

The act of gardening extends past the physical act itself. There is evidence that maintaining our connection with  nature is good for our health and well-being. A research study of patients recovering from gall bladder surgery has shown that the patients who had a view of nature were re- leased from the hospital a day earlier than those patients who did not have a view of the trees (“View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery”, Science, 1994). Studies have validated what we know to be true, which is that people are more comfortable in gardens as op- posed to more urban settings. Access to nature has been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. There is a natural absorption of Vitamin D when exposed to the sun for a short period of time. These and other health benefits are derived from participating in gardening activities, such as the use of raised planters.

It is important to look at who will be using the elevated garden, as well as where the containers will be used. Residents will benefit from the access raised planters can bring. The first step is to assess the needs of the people who will be using this special garden. The ability to work in the soil at an elevated height will enable them   to garden. Locating the raised planters  near a door or patio area makes it easier to get to the containers, especially for someone using a wheelchair or assertive device. One of the many benefits of utilizing containers is that they are usually movable and can be easily relocated.

The fun begins with choosing the many raised planters. Leafing through magazines and visiting garden centers will reveal many of the options available today, while old-fashioned terra cotta pots are very familiar to avid gardeners and can bring back great memories, they are heavier and need to be protected in the colder climates during the winter. Composite stone or plastic pots are more durable. Plastic pots are often lighter and are made to resemble terra cotta. Raised planting  beds, constructed of wood, can also be built into the garden. Hanging baskets offer greater accessibility. Finally, cost and availability can be deter- mining factors in selecting what to use, in addition to aesthetics and durability.

Another factor to consider when getting started is the height of the container. A comfortable height for most disabled people is approximately 26 to 30 inches, as it permits wheelchair or walker access. The elevated height makes it easier for anyone with a back problem to reach the plants without having to bend over the ground. Be sure to offer a range of heights so everyone is physically able to participate. The containers should be large enough for their roots to spread. And remember to make sure that the container has holes in the bottom for good drainage.

Now that the “how to’s” have been covered, it is time to focus our attention on the fun decisions on what to plant. This choice is only limited as a gardener’s own imagination. Most importantly, an essential part is to involve seniors in the planning. There may be some plants that they have grown that can be used. Annuals, perennials, bulbs, herbs and vegetables are a good consideration. Some of the better annuals to include are Marigolds, Dusty Miller, Sunflowers and Zinnias. If shade is a consideration, you may want to use Begonias, Coleus and Impatiens. Interesting perennials that will return each year, to the delight of every gardener, are Scarlet Sage, Black Eyed Susan, Blanket Flower, Carnations, Echinacea and Lobelia. A few of these will also attract to butterflies and/or hummingbirds. The containers should be a minimum of 15 inches deep for plants to survive in the northern regions.

The thoughtful selection of tools can help make gardening easier. Helen McConnell is a life long educator who has, in recent years, specialized in teaching others ways to make gardening easier. Helen has been challenged by scoliosis and arthritis and has developed ways to continue to pursue her avocation – gardening. At 70, Helen teaches classes  on evaluating tools to meet the needs of gardeners with special needs.

One final note, before you start planting in raised planters, be sure to remember to provide easy access to water. Some containers, especially shallow pots and window boxes, dry out quickly in high temperatures. Check daily for signs of wilting in the summer months, as this is a good indication that the soil is drying out. One of the best moisture indicators is the human finger. Watering, checking the plants, weeding, tilling the soil and other gardening “chores” can become the residents’ daily activities. Emphasis should be placed on the need to survive. Very shortly, older participants will cherish their new job and plants will not just grow, but thrive under their care.

— By Jack Carman, FASLA Jack Carman, FASLA, President of Design for Generations, is an acclaimed Landscape Architect Consultant, specializing in the development of  the  exterior  environment of senior residences nationwide,  and  may be reached  at 609-953-5881 or by  e-mail jack@designforgenerations.com.

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