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Gardening for Therapy


During recent years, research on the benefits of gardening has been capturing more attention. Professor of landscape architecture William Sullivan, along with his colleagues, have published several papers surrounding how exposure to nature reduces stress and improves the health and well-being of people. Published articles that seem to make the rounds on social media reveal that the bacteria found in soil boosts the immune system and stimulates nerves to release the good mood chemical serotonin in our brain.

Based on these studies researchers have pushed to explore the benefits of being outdoors for populations of older adults and those with physical or mental disabilities.

Teaching Assistant Professor Andrea Faber Taylor has published papers on the effects exposure to nature has in children with ADHD. Those studies reveal that exposure to quality natural settings and outdoor activities has the same effect as a dose of a prescription medication such as Ritalin.

Research also shows older adults with access to a comfortable outdoor garden setting report fewer ailments and a positive disposition.

Many readers may be thinking, "This is nothing new. We've known this for years!" And indeed we have employed therapeutic gardening since early Egypt. At the beginning of the 1800s, Dr. Benjamin Rush recorded the therapeutic effects of working the garden. Following both World War I and II, veteran hospitals used gardening as therapy for returning soldiers. Even today, there are many gardening and farming programs for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

My point is now we are acquiring the research to back up what we have known for so long. Gardening is good! Importantly, we can use this research when presenting our case to groups or organizations in support of the benefits of gardening, farming, and being in nature.

What may be required next is a shift in our time-strapped culture, where we have so much demanding our attention. Growing a plant forces our patience as we await the opening of a flower bud or ripening of a vegetable. During that time, we note observations of the soil, insects both good and bad, weather, and the habit of the plant as it moves through its lifecycle. Watching and culturing the life of another organism is powerful for any human being.

A shift in our mindset toward nature positions the fields of horticulture, urban agriculture, landscape design, and landscape architecture as key career paths to promote the health and well-being of everyone in our community. Not just those with the means to afford the graces of nature or a well-kept yard.

Across the state, the University of Illinois Extension has collaborated with various organizations to develop programs for diverse audiences with specific needs. Check out some of University of Illinois Extension horticulture therapy programs below:

Knox County Nursing Home

University of Illinois Extension Knox County Master Gardeners work to beautify the grounds of the Knox County Nursing Home for the residents and employees. Master Gardeners have built raised beds for wheelchair accessibility, and they conduct programs for residents, such as their annual nursery tour. https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hkmw/mg/5240.html

Illinois Veteran's Home Memorial Garden

Adams County Master Gardeners maintain the only public garden in Quincy on the Illinois Veterans Home grounds. The garden acts as a place of memorial and solace for veterans. Each major war or conflict has a dedicated garden space.

Adult Horticulture Therapy in DuPage County

At the DuPage County Convalescent Center Master Gardeners, assist residents with planting and growing gardens in raised beds along with providing lessons in gardening. Cantigny Veterans' Garden is a new project that pairs Master Gardeners with veterans for garden lessons and vegetable gardening at Cantigny.

Youth Horticulture Therapy in DuPage County

DuPage County also conducts horticulture therapy projects for youth.

  • Gardening with Special Needs Students at Downers Grove North High School - Hands-on garden activities are held one morning per month at the high school. Weather permitting; activities are held outdoors incorporating the newly installed raised beds located in the school's courtyard. Programs are inside during the winter months.
  • Rec & Roll - Western DuPage Special Recreation Association - A team of Master Gardeners present monthly hands-on gardening lessons with these special participants.
  • Ronald McDonald House Central DuPage Hospital - Master Gardeners work with the very special patients and families at the new facility. They teach indoor lessons and utilize the raised garden beds for sensory and butterfly gardens for visitors to enjoy.
  • We Grow Dreams -Master Gardeners teach gardening lessons, and vocational skills to the special associates at We Grow Dreams Greenhouse in West Chicago.

More information on horticulture therapy programs in DuPage County can be found at the following link https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/dupagemg/149.html

Friendship Garden

This garden is a weekly meeting place at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington for adults with developmental disabilities. Master Gardeners contribute to the program, titled Friends First, by providing educational programs and by assisting the participants in the design and care of the flower and herb garden.

Community Cancer Center

The Community Cancer Center Healing Garden was begun in June of 2015 to create an oasis of peace for cancer patients, their families, staff and the community as a whole. Master Gardeners are involved in assisting with planning, planting and care for the garden which includes a terrace garden, labyrinth (meditative walkway) and a butterfly garden to be viewed by patients receiving infusions.

More information can be found at the following link https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/lmw_mg/4179.html

Vermilion County Master Gardeners at Danville VA

At the VA healing garden Master Gardeners work in an enclosed garden available to Veterans and their visitors. VA Outreach sessions work with veterans monthly to share horticulture knowledge. Master Gardeners also propagate, grow, and maintain plants in the VA greenhouse. Younger veterans are encouraged to assist with older veterans in programming. Programs vary depending on the season and include creating terrariums for veteran's rooms, Patriotic Planters to display around the facility around Memorial Day and Fourth of July, grow vegetables for harvest, seed starting, and much more.

More information at the following link https://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/vermilionmg/815.html

Garden Therapy Programs in Champaign County

  • Champaign County Nursing Home Garden -The overarching Goal of the Garden is two-fold: education and enrichment. Education for the volunteer gardeners who work this garden in the three seasons we have to work and education for visitors to the garden who can see a variety of plants growing in harmony with each other. Enrichment to add to the lives of the nursing home residents and their visitors as they tour and view the garden which serves to provide beauty for the residents and perhaps evoke memories of gardens they once knew.
  • Crisis Nursery Garden - Crisis Nursery creates an "Island of Safety" dedicated to the prevention of child abuse and neglect by providing 24-hour emergency care for children and support to strengthen families in crisis. The garden provides a haven for children at Crisis Nursery and introduces them and their parents to gardening.
  • Juvenile Detention Center Garden - The Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center Master Gardener Community Garden is a year-round educational program targeted to at-risk youth ages 12-17 that are remanded at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). The JDC garden has two educational goals: 1) To provide didactic and interactive lessons on gardening, healthy eating, horticulture, related career ideas, nature, and environmental stewardship. 2) To provide hands-on gardening experience for the youth.
  • Senior Grow Box Gardens - The Senior Grow Box Gardens works to provide seniors with the opportunity to produce their vegetables despite limited mobility, space, and tools. The Senior Grow Box Gardens works with seniors at local assisted living facilities such as Youman Place in Rantoul.

More information can be found at the following link https://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/champaignmg/4909.html

Did I miss an Extension horticulture therapy program? Contact me or leave a message below to add it to the list. cenroth@illinois.edu


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