Therapeutic Gardening

In an article in The Telegraph, Sarah Rainey writes about special needs youngsters who thrive when given horticultural tasks. Horticulture therapy has a long history of use in rehabilitation centres, hospitals and nursing homes as a means of improving quality of life.

In the article, Natasha Etherington, a horticultural therapist based in Pitt Meadows and the author of Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs, speaks of the benefits of therapeutic gardening for children with special needs. “Classrooms can be a sensory onslaught for these young people, but gardens are the opposite.” Etherington trained as an horticultural therapist (HT) at the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver. In 2009, she developed a weekly horticulture therapy garden program for children with special needs at Pitt Meadows Elementary School.

Etherington says, “Getting a child with ASD into a garden has so many benefits, not least that they are given some autonomy outside. The most immediate benefit will be a sense of relief and welcome break from the classroom environment. Whilst gardening, we’re practicing social interaction and life skills, and working with soil and plants helps to reduce tactile defensiveness. Learning basic horticultural skills educates in context, and along the way you will also see an increase in language and communication skills.”

With a Rick Hansen Foundation grant, Ethrington designed an Enabling Garden specifically for wheelchair users, which is included in her book. The Enabling Garden is “an A-frame garden (using untreated cedar wood) which is inset into a long border to avoid being knocked or nudged as other students use the garden. It is placed between the vegetable patch and the digging plot to maximize the potential for social interaction. There is a universal access, adjustable potting table which provides space for two wheelchairs to work side-by-side or for a support worker.”

In an April article in rustic Magazine, Florence Strang, a Newfoundland-based mother of three and registered psychologist, who uses horticultural therapy in her counseling work, discusses the value of the therapy for children with autism. Her experience has been personal as well as professional, having used it in her own cancer recovery and with her autistic son.

Strang notes, “Facilitated by a trained therapist, engaging a person in gardening and plant-based activities helps achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals and the fact that it can be easily adapted to schools and home settings makes it a valuable therapeutic approach.”

She discusses how autism “impairs communication and socialization skills, though many people with autism also have sensory issues, in which some (or all) of their five senses are over-sensitive or under-sensitive to external stimuli. Then, when their senses are bombarded, it can create extreme anxiety and result in a so-called ‘melt down’. In addition, many people with autism, particularly children, struggle with fine motor tasks, such as using scissors or zipping a jacket. A well-planned horticultural therapy program can address each of these areas.” In the article, Strang gives specific suggestions of how therapeutic gardening offers benefits for communication skills, social skills, sensory issues and motor skills.

In Vancouver, the BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services program at BC Children’s Hospital has partnered with the Environmental Youth Alliance to build a garden comprised of eight plots, five barrel planters and a berry patch. The Environmental Youth Alliance, a Vancouver-based nonprofit, built the garden two years ago in partnership with the Provincial Health Services Authority and conducts therapeutic-horticulture sessions there for children and youth being treated for eating, mood, and other disorders.

A May Georgia Straightarticle features the garden, which includes chives, kale, parsley, and radishes in raised beds used by both in-patients and out-patients of the child-psychiatry unit and the adolescent psychiatric inpatient unit. There’s a ‘digging pit’ for releasing pent-up emotions and energy. A round area will soon be home to a bean tepee where kids can hide. One of the nearby barrel planters is filled with lemon balm, mint, and sorrel. On the other side of the garden, there’s a compost bin, a tool bin, and plots for patients in the provincial specialized eating-disorder program.

Julia Thiessen, Executive Director of the Environmental Youth Alliance, says, “Because of their sensitivities to food, working with the herbs and the flowers is a really nice entry point for them.” The garden, which is free of stakes and sharp objects, is designed with year-round plants that stimulate all the senses, as well as herbs with strong medicinal properties. “Part of being outside is just feeling the wind on your face and the sun on your skin, smelling things, and hearing the geese fly by. All that adds up to a sense of wellbeing. It’s been documented that nature can play a strong role in healing and wellness.”

A number of CAPC programs throughout the province have incorporated gardening into their programs. The Dze L'Kant Friendship Centre Society, part of the Northwest Parenting & Pregnancy Outreach CAPC Coalition, is gardening with kids.