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Adaptive and Therapeutic Gardening

Mickey Scullard, Dakota County Master Gardener Volunteer

“Time spent in nature is essential for our health and comes with myriad benefits,” says
Dr. Jean Larson, the manager of Nature-Based Therapeutics and Nature Heals Initiative at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and faculty lead of the Nature-Based Therapeutic Studies at the Earl Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing of the University of Minnesota. Read on for Master Gardener Mickey Scullard’s article about the therapeutic applications of horticulture and ways to make the benefits of gardening more accessible to many different levels of ability.

Adaptive and Therapeutic Gardening

Adaptive and Therapeutic Gardening addresses health, healing, and methods to help people of all abilities garden. Adaptive gardening provides suggestions for tools and garden structures that facilitate people who may have visual, sensory, or physical limitations such as arthritis or mobility difficulties that don’t permit kneeling on the ground. Therapeutic gardening, often called Horticultural Therapy, employs techniques that help people regain lost skills or learn new skills. 

Horticultural therapy has a long history of proven success in helping people heal through gardening. Originally focused on people with mental illnesses and then on soldiers returning from combat, it has expanded far beyond that to include physical rehabilitation for many conditions. Research has shown that horticultural therapy helps improve memory and cognitive abilities, too. Some programs have found success helping people who live with eating disorders. Physically, people can improve muscle strength, coordination, balance, and endurance. Horticultural therapy is performed by therapists who are professionals with specialized training leading to certification. 

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Health partners with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to offer a horticultural therapy certification program as part of their Nature-based therapeutics program: UMN Nature-Based Therapeutics. They also offer courses in animal-assisted interactions and therapeutic landscape design. 

The Landscape Arboretum has a Sensory Garden that provides people with a wonderful example of the different type of healing properties of plants through smell, texture, and beauty. Designed to help encourage people to relax and designed to be accessible, it has something for everyone. 

Adaptive gardening provides methods people can use to garden throughout their life. This may start with the garden design, identifying the best planting structures, and using tools that have been designed to lessen strain, extend reach, and other mechanisms to help people perform all the steps needed to grow flowers and vegetables. Oregon State University developed an informative guide that walks you through the things to think about (see link below). For example, you may want to plan your garden walkways to be wheelchair accessible, position garden beds near water sources, or use a plastic garbage can filled with water to allow the gardener to easily dip their watering can. The material you use on pathways between garden beds can facilitate movement and thinking about different heights and widths of garden beds are other considerations. Container gardening may be a good technique for some people to continue to garden with less maintenance. The Landscape Arboretum’s Sensory Garden provides some examples of adaptive gardening through containers and raised beds. 

There are also smaller, easier ways to adapt to gardening limitations that include the availability of specialized garden tools that have handles that lessen strain on arthritic limbs and hands, or those that extend the reach so you don’t have to bend as far. For example, you can get easi-grip trowels, ergonomic and/or ratcheting pruners. 

You will want to practice safe lifting techniques by bending at the hips, lift with your knees, and lift close to your body. Consider lighter loads and making multiple trips. Pushing is better than pulling and it is always good to use carts/wagons. Other techniques that can help you garden longer safely include stretching before starting, gardening in shorter amounts of time, e.g., 60 – 90 minutes. Try to avoid or break-up repetitive movements and make sure you drink water. 

Gardening has many benefits to our health, well-being, and good mental health. With some extra work, it can be experienced by everyone. It can also help people heal from injuries, learn new skills, and address many different types of mental health issues. 


University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Health Nature-Based Therapeutics

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Nature-Based Therapeutics

Oregon State University

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

Photo Credit: Sarah Heidtke (1,2,3) & University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (4,5)

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