Therapy Can Be a Walk in the Garden

by Jill Schuette, OT –

It’s a hodgepodge of plant life: petunias, tomatoes, squash, rosemary, ferns. To the casual observer, it may seem like landscaping with a lack of direction. But to the therapy team at Pocatello Care and Rehab, it is a garden with a clear sense of purpose. In the facility’s small courtyard, a very special program is in full bloom. This is where patients practice therapeutic gardening as part of an interdisciplinary array of therapy techniques.

Working with plants is helpful to patients with emotional and physical challenges. For example, stroke victims can work on upper extremity function as they turn soil in a planter or water flowers. Gardening helps strengthen muscles, improve fine motor skills, increase endurance and enhance dexterity. Patients with depression or other mood disorders can increase their activity level and self-esteem.

The courtyard garden has a wide path for patients to practice safe maneuvering with walkers or wheelchairs, and features sitting and standing-height planters. Future plans for expansion include benches and conversational seating areas for therapeutic rest breaks and socialization.

Our Simple Garden Recipe:

1) Cement blocks: we stacked ours at different heights to allow both standing and seated therapy

2) Sturdy wood frames with bottom supports

3) Garden box inserts: ours are heavy black plastic, but we would recommend you choose something deep enough to allow for root expansion. We are limited to shallow root plants such as strawberries and culinary herbs

4) Wine casks or whiskey barrels: we bought ours from the local nursery. Be sure to drill holes in the bottoms to allow for proper drainage of soil.

5) Gourds: we selected these because they allow for a longer cultivating/harvesting season

6) Sensory plants: herbs are great for the senses –touch, smell and taste

7) Multi-pick plants: strawberries and tomatoes allow multiple harvests for patients

8) Visual stimulation: low maintenance flowers like petunias and sunflowers pack a visual punch

9) Water: Be sure to include watering your garden when doing daily planning. Patients manage our watering six days a week, nursing staff handles the seventh day.

Your garden project doesn’t need to be expensive or fancy. Sometimes simple really is best. Our garden setup changes each season, based on what works and what doesn’t.

Be sure to get the most out of your therapy garden by choosing plants that have multiple uses. Have your patients harvest fresh herbs for cooking activities, cut flowers for a dining table arrangement,and paint gourds for fall and winter table decorations. Use your imagination to get your patients actively involved in their garden. Give them ownership and see what blooms!

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