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Digging the benefits

Young and old patients reap a bounty of sensory and health rewards from therapeutic gardening

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By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2011

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The sun was beating down, the air smelled like spring, and the worm was wiggling on the 5-year-old’s muddy palm.

“I got a lot of worms. Maybe six or 17,’’ she said later.

The petite gardener with pink wire-frame glasses loves working in the plot at Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton. It reminds her of her grandmother’s garden, where her dog Tinkerbell sometimes gets into trouble for stepping on the plants.

Franciscan Hospital, which treats children with a variety of special needs, is among a number of American hospital systems, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers that maintain gardens that patients can work in. So-called therapeutic gardening helps patients feel better, recover faster and stay healthy longer, according to decades of research, mainly conducted in Europe and Asia.

Of course, you don’t need to be in a hospital to benefit from gardening.

Digging, planting, watering, and harvesting are good for a myriad of ills, research suggests:

■ Light lifting, bending, and twisting helps keep old muscles strong and limber (though consider raised beds if you’re over 60 to avoid back strain).

■ The social aspects that are often part of gardening are good for mental health and building social skills.

■ The sensory stimulation — the sights and smells of the garden — can be good for people whose senses have dulled with age, as well as soothing for patients of any age.

■ The satisfaction of watching something you’ve planted grow and flourish can be liberating for anyone whose ill health makes them dependent on others.

■ People are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves — who couldn’t stand to eat more fresh, whole foods without added sugar, fat, or food colorings?

■ And we seem to be hard-wired to benefit from being exposed to nature. Even a houseplant has been shown to improve the quality of life for someone who is shut in.

To the 5-year-old, whose parents asked that she not be named to protect her privacy, a garden is also a place where she can dream about the future. She said she wants to grow up to have a garden of her own, where she can grow all sorts of things, and “can pick flowers whenever I want.’’

She doesn’t like it when people pick dandelions, though.

“They’re very special to me and I like them,’’ she said, insistently, even after her teacher at the hospital explained that they were weeds. (Children may stay at Franciscan Hospital for extended periods, even receiving schooling while there.) “Dandelions you can make a wish with. You make wishes on them and they come true.’’

Claire Benway, a teacher at the hospital, said her students love gardening so much, she successfully lobbied for a much larger garden at the hospital this year. With the help of volunteers, she and her colleagues reclaimed a courtyard, and have just begun this year’s planting.

Benway said she recently took two troubled pre-teens into the garden and had a “lovely conversation’’ in which they were able to talk about their mental health problems.

“It gives them an opportunity to do something with their hands as we talk,’’ Benway said.

She can work with all ages in the garden, Benway said, from preschoolers who enjoy the sensory experience of sticking their fingers in dirt, to older teenagers whose emotional issues make it difficult for them to follow rules. Instead of arguing, these adolescents will often listen intently as she explains how to pull weeds, poke seeds into the soil, or harvest plants, she said.

Those children at Franciscan Hospital who are on psychiatric medications can experience significant side effects, including weight gain, sluggishness, and exhaustion, so “any time we can encourage physical activity, we do,’’ Benway said.

The garden also promotes healthy eating. Teachers serve vegetables from the garden as a snack, she said, “and explain why a tomato is better than a cookie. It’s funny how many times I will tell the kids: ‘Taste it, you can eat it,’ and they go ‘You can?’ ’’

There isn’t much research on the benefits of gardening for children — troubled or otherwise, said Amy Wagenfeld, Benway’s predecessor at Franciscan Hospital. But she’s hoping to change that. Wagenfeld is currently in negotiations to start a program in Florida where she would research the benefits of gardening for children with autism, she said.

Teresia Hazen, coordinator of therapeutic gardens at Legacy Health System, a hospital system based in Portland, Ore., says she sees all the same benefits in adult patients as in children.

The garden at Legacy’s Oregon Burn Center, for instance, allows burn victims to exercise, build endurance, and perhaps even smell again for the first time since smoke or infection damaged their nasal passages, Hazen said. A visit to the garden is often their first contact with the outside world after being injured.

Benefits are also clear for nursing home residents.

In 1976, Ellen Langer, now a psychology professor at Harvard, took a group of 90 nursing home residents and gave half jade plants to care for. A few weeks later, the group that had received the plants reported feeling happier, and nurses on the unit said they showed general improvements; the group that didn’t get the plants weren’t as happy as they had been a month earlier and had declined in health, according to the nurses’ ratings.

Although at the time, Langer credited the improvement to the extra responsibility of caring for a plant, she now talks about how plants drive people to pay attention to the world around them.

“Mindlessness is pervasive, yet there are certain activities out there that by their very nature promote mindfulness,’’ said Langer who has written several books on mindfulness. By making people more tuned in, she said, gardening boosts their competence, self-esteem, well-being, and health.

Gardens are also wonderful for people with failing memories, said Tara Fleming-Caruso, of NewBridge on the Charles, an assisted living facility that includes housing for people with dementia. Planting, harvesting, and being in a garden reminds residents of happy moments in their past, the exercise helps keep key muscles active so they don’t forget how to use them, and there is something profoundly important about touching the earth, Fleming-Caruso said. Most residents won’t remember the time they spent in the garden, but they will remember the positive feelings it evoked, she said. “Feeling is the last to go.’’

“If you think about having dementia, probably the internal stress you are experiencing from the changes in your brain and the fact that your whole world is falling apart,’’ she said, “that sort of peace is a very important respite.’’

Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.

For safety’s sake

As beneficial as gardening can be, it’s important to be mindful of physical limitations. It’s not necessary to lean to the ground to pull up weeds, or lift 10-pound bags of soil. Raised beds can be built to accommodate working from a standing position or wheelchair.

Care should be taken when growing food in urban gardens. Plants grown in soil tainted by contaminants can pass the chemicals along to the people who eat them. Many soil-testing products and services are available. The University of Massachusetts operates a service that evaluates specimens via mail. Contact the Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory, 413-545-2311, www.umass.edu/soiltest.

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