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Six tips for a great gardening program

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Dave Singleton
Dave Singleton

"To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world." -- Author Stanley Crawford

Often, seniors are worried about losing a sense of "beautiful home" when they enter into any kind of assisted living or retirement community. One creative way to address that worry: planting vegetables, herbs, flowers, and more.

A gardening program (or horticulture therapy) gives seniors an opportunity to beautify the environment around them and engage in a beloved hobby — or take up a hobby they've always wanted to try. It can be a wonderful addition to the assisted living activities program you offer and a strong selling point for potential residents.

There are other benefits too: Gardening can help your residents improve mood, increase their sense of self-worth, and even enhance communication, says Claudia Collins, a specialist in healthy aging and lifelong learning who helped develop a community garden with Nevada's Silver Sky Assisted Living. "The staff were amazed by the fairly radical change in participants," she notes.

Just think what impact growing plants, flowers, and vegetables could have on your facility. Here are six ideas that will help you create gardens -- and a gardening program -- that your residents will love. 

Plant the "seeds" of interest in a fun way. "Spark a passion for gardening by creating a virtual tour and then taking field trips to real gardens to show residents how they work," says John O'Hara, garden coach at Special Plants Special People in the San Francisco Bay Area. "This will get residents excited as they see the possibilities for themselves. Having photos and video that show the benefits that a beautiful garden will bring to your facility is a great marketing tool, too."

Encourage participation by focusing on the health aspects. "Gardening helps seniors fight isolation and improves health and attitude," says Angela M. O'Callaghan, PhD and social horticulture specialist at the University of Nevada. Raise support for your facility's garden as an investment in the health of your residents. 

"There's more than just the physical exercise and mental engagement. There's a spiritual aspect as well. The people are giving to the plants by watering and taking care of them," says O'Hara. "And the plants give back to the people a sense of purpose and connection." 

Help residents see that gardens also restore a sense control over some aspects of life, which is positively correlated with better health.

Get staff involved to build community. "The garden will create community not only among the residents but also among the staff," says O'Hara. "Facility staff can get burned out. It's just a fact. I have seen how engaging the entire facility can really bring residents and staff together in a positive way. Stress that it's not just for community; it's for food, too. You're creating something tangible -- garden to kitchen to table -- that everyone can help produce and share." It might motivate residents when they see that they can make their own food taste better. 

Take advantage of your space and weather. "Consider both indoor and outdoor components for your gardening program," says O'Callaghan. "This isn't an either/or situation. You just need to consider the weather in your location and what suits residents best. Start with an indoor garden, such as windowsill boxes, since they're simpler. Then move to outdoor options, but factor in capacity -- wheelchair and accessibility issues." Make sure outdoor space is handicap accessible for wheelchairs and walkers, and raise gardening beds so residents don't have to garden on their hands and knees.  

Offer tools and support. To ensure your garden's success, make sure you provide everything residents need to be successful -- training, supplies, lights, pots, and seeds, to name a few needed items. "Make sure you take advantage of the knowledgeable gardeners in the group, too," says O'Callaghan. "Call out the experienced gardeners in the facility as valued contributors. They can provide their know-how to the group while feeling good about their contributions. It's nice for them to know that skills from former homes translate to their new ones." 

Keep it simple. You don't have to grow huge flowering plants or truckloads of tomatoes. Keep your garden successful by keeping it manageable. Of course, your parameters for that will vary depending on your residents' abilities and interests. "Sometimes I'll start small and plant a few seeds with a resident, and then show them the progress over a few weeks," says O'Hara.

 "Let them know they have options, too," says O'Callaghan. "They don't have to grow flowers. They can keep a small pot or two of relatively simple herbs. It's also good to have a regular class or check-in system in place to troubleshoot if seniors hit a stumbling block." You don't want anyone stuck or disappointed.


Dave Singleton is an award-winning writer and author. 


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Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.