Gardening for Health
14 July 2008
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Most of us who garden recognize that working with plants is good for us both physically and mentally. Gardening is moderate, and sometimes strenuous, exercise that incorporates many important elements of accepted exercise regimes, such as stretching and stance, repetition and movement, and even resistance principles similar to weight training, while expending calories. Gardening provides an adequate and challenging workout, but is not as stressful to the body as other exercise options, such as jogging or aerobics. It is still important to warm up muscle groups by properly stretching before gardening and is imperative to use proper techniques for lifting objects, bending, or carrying. Also, unlike many exercise options, you can become involved in what you are doing and still take time to smell the roses.
Many rehabilitation hospitals and nursing care centers have carried this benefit a step farther and made horticulture a part of the treatment of their clients. There are trained and experienced individuals who work as horticultural therapists to set goals and design gardening activities to help people regain their health. In addition, many volunteers, especially among Master Gardeners, help with horticultural therapy programs. In Charlottesville, examples of programs like this exist at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and at the Kluge Childrens Rehabilitation Center.
These programs provide many tips that can help anyone, especially individuals with disabilities, enjoy gardening more. The key to successful gardening is to keep the garden a manageable size. Of course, that size is different for each person, but small is best. A container full of healthy plants has greater therapeutic benefit than a huge garden filled with weeds, insects, and disease. Always start small then let the garden grow as success and self-confidence develops.
The best design for a garden will depend on an individual's strength and personal preference. For example, among people who use a wheelchair for mobility, some people prefer to get in touch with the earth and move along the garden row with two sturdy mats, transferring from one mat to the other as they progress. In this case, short handled tools are ideal. For people who prefer to work in regular ground beds from their chair, long-handled tools make the job easier. These tools should be lightweight and have small working heads so that exceptional strength is not required for the leverage to lift them.
An alternative is to build raised beds so that the plants and soil are at a convenient height to maintain from a seated position. If twisting to the side is difficult, consider a shallow planter mounted on legs or set on a tabletop that allows for the knees to fit under it. While this limits the choices of plants, many herbs and low growing annual flowers will perform well in a planter only 4 inches deep if watered daily in the heat of summer.
A new gardener who has a visual impairment may build self-confidence and develop skills in a bed that can be worked while standing.
Avoid the urge to plant too many herbs and other fragrant plants that can overwhelm each other with conflicting odors. Look for plants with interesting textures (i.e. Lamb's ear), sounds (i.e. the seedpods of Siberian Iris), and certainly taste (the miniature tomato, Robin, is a heavy producer all season in only 6 inches of soil).
Try a few action plants also. The explosive seed pods of the balsa or touch-me-not are interesting for gardeners and friends alike.
Another suggestion might be to use wind chimes or other sound producers to help in orientation in the garden.
Gardening is an excellent means of diverting the mind from work, family conflicts, or other issues, hence relieving stress and providing mental relaxation. Gardening is a relaxing activity, great for unwinding after a difficult day at work, especially when gardening on a small, personal scale.
Keeping plants in good health satisfies the human instinct to nurture and provide care. Gardeners are rewarded for their efforts when the plants they have pampered and coddled flower, produce fruit, and maintain a healthy appearance.
For more information about this and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.