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The Healing Power of Gardening

April 25, 2018

Planting Seeds for Recovery 

Best experienced with headphones and the soundtrack below. 

Janet Chamberlain, a Craig grad with spinal cord injury, experienced the benefits of horticultural therapy first hand. As a home gardener before her accident, she was anxious to get back into the garden. To her surprise, she was able to use this leisure activity as therapy to help with strength, endurance and mobility on uneven terrain. “When you come to Craig you’re in a diminished state. It’s great to have someone show you that life goes on and that you can have fun, do some of the things you always wanted to do, or maybe even try something you didn’t know you wanted to,” says Janet. “Susie shares those opportunities with horticultural therapy.” 

At Craig Hospital, therapeutic recreation is an integral part of the total rehabilitation process and we have seen patients make dramatic improvements in their rehabilitation program when they rediscover leisure-time activities. Horticultural therapy is one of the many aspects of therapeutic recreation and strives to get patients back to gardening, or in some cases discover it’s healing power for the first time. Craig’s Horticultural Therapy program has been in existence since 1982 and has been coordinated by Susie Hall, a registered horticultural therapist (HTR), for the last 24 years. 

Horticultural Therapy (HT) uses gardening and plant-related activities to improve the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial well-being of individuals. Craig’s program utilizes both indoor and outdoor gardening spaces. Inside is a 320 square foot “Green Room” used for teaching basic houseplant care and propagation. High intensity supplemental lighting provides adequate lighting needed for growing indoor tropical plants as well as spring seed-starting for the summer gardens. 

Outside are two therapy gardens which were designed specifically as teaching areas where patients learn accessible gardening techniques. These areas are utilized for patient treatment and also serve as welcoming places for all who visit. 

Craig’s horticultural therapy program has two approaches, leisure and therapeutic.

Leisure

The leisure approach focuses on identifying accessible gardening equipment and tools specific to the patient’s needs and interests for their return to gardening. “We want to show people how they can continue to garden after having a brain injury or spinal cord injury. That involves working with people and helping them learn the different tools and techniques to do it,” says Susie. “We introduce adaptive equipment that help people to become more independent with watering, pruning, weeding and planting.” 

Therapeutic

With the therapeutic approach, the horticultural therapist meets with the patient and their physical, occupational, or speech therapist and uses plant-related activities to work on individualized therapy goals. For example, a speech therapist might have specific goals they are working on with a patient such as cognition, visual, following directions, focusing, staying on task. The horticultural therapist would then identify gardening activities that help patients work toward those goals. “With the therapeutic approach, you are thinking first about the therapy goals and using gardening activities as the means to reach that goal,” says Susie.

Adaptive Equipment

As part of the horticultural therapy program at Craig, Susie works with patients to show them equipment modifications to make gardening more accessible. A popular addition to gardening tools are the forearm or universal cuff, a design created by Craig volunteers. Download the cuff patterns here and explore the modifications below! 

I remember coming into the therapeutic recreation room and saw the beautiful green room that’s full of life and plants that are just lovely. It pulled me in. There are lemon plants, plants that smell like menthol, colorful plants, exotic plants. It’s just a lovely place to be.

Janet Chamberlain

Therapeutic Garden Elements

The elements found in Craig’s garden make it therapeutic and there is a high degree of correlation in physical design and programming intended to improve therapeutic benefits to garden visitors. At Craig, the therapeutic elements include: 

  • Water features offer calm and soothing sound.
  • A wind sculpture features a slow, single movement that compliments the low stimulation garden environment.
  • Electrical outlets can be found at each of the benches – These electrical outlets are provided for patients who use mechanical ventilators. If their batteries are low they can plug in and continue their stay in the garden without having to go inside. We also use them for musical events, holiday lighting displays and other entertainment for patients and families. 
  • Raised planter beds and containers have been designed for accessibility. 
  • Sensory plants are selected to appeal to senses such as hearing, touch, smell and taste.
  • Our accessible paths are ADA compliant making the garden accessible to all.  

Craig is such a great atmosphere of inclusivity and hopefulness.

Janet Chamberlain

Sometimes Susie asks patients what they like about being in the green room or garden spaces outside. Some people say that the dirt smells good or that they feel alive & fresh. Others say they don’t think about their injury when they are in the room. “It’s a good place for them to get away and let go of everything else that’s going on in their day,” says Susie. “I think people use the green room and our gardens outside to connect with nature, which I think is so important. Some like to get their hands in the dirt, and others like to be in and around the plants. It’s different for everybody, but I think it touches people in their own special way. It’s fun to hear what they have to say.” 

“All of the activities therapeutic recreation offers, like horticultural therapy, is a reminder that there are options to life. Craig introduces people to new and different activities and people may choose that as an avenue of new expression in life and that’s empowering,” says Janet.