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Gardening good for the soul.

Nursing homes and retirement communities are among the facilities that are embracing horticulture therapy. Since the mental and physical health benefits of gardening are well documented, many hospitals and other health-care facilities are adding gardening programs.

Carrie Bretzke, the activity director for Mariner Health, in Spring, Texas, a home for senior citizens, uses horticulture therapy with residents.

"Not everyone here truly enjoys the gardening program," she says. "But for those who do, it makes a world of difference. I had one resident who was almost completely closed off. Nothing I did seemed to reach her. Then one day I took her outside to a raised bed and handed her a plant and trowel. Her expression was as if a light came on. She immediately started digging and planting. From then on, she was a happier person and gardening was part of her regular program."

Bretzke says that gardening helps seniors in several different ways.

"Physically, gardening is really good for dexterity," she says. "With age it sometimes becomes more difficult to move our hands and other limbs. It is often easy for the elderly to simply stop using the muscles. By finding an activity that the residents like and enjoy, I can keep them moving, and they are healthier for it."

Physical benefits are only one of the many advantages that horticulture therapy brings to elderly residents.

"I've been gardening for as long as I can remember," one resident says as she pushed a trowel into the soft earth. "And I'm almost a hundred, so that's a long time."

"The elderly are known to lose confidence in themselves," Bretzke says. "Because gardening can be adapted to meet everyone's abilities, it is a good way to give them a sense of accomplishment. And retaining self-confidence and self-worth is very important to seniors.

"I think the best thing that comes from gardening is the reminiscing," she says. "Many of the residents here suffer from some degree of dementia, making it hard to recall memories that they would otherwise treasure. When an elderly person gets his or her hands in dirt and smells the earth and the plants, the sense of touch and smell helps them to recall past gardening experiences. And for anyone who loves horticulture, there are seldom bad gardening memories."

As a group of residents sit around repotted plants, someone has another story to share.

"I used to plant these in my yard," one woman says.

"Me, too," answers another resident. "And I grew a vegetable garden."

"The conversation always seems to flow when they are planting," Bretzke says. "Socialization is definitely part of the horticulture therapy. But you know, gardening is also a hobby that speaks its own language. We have many residents who do not speak English, and yet you get them together with another gardener and somehow they communicate. One will take the shovel. Another will point to a spot. They will dig, plant and before long they're smiling.

"And that," Bretzke says, "is a good thing."

For more information on horticulture therapy, visit the Web site for the American Horticultural Therapy Association at There are several books on horticulture therapy as applied to senior citizens, including "Horticultural Therapy and the Older Adult Population," by Suzanne E. Wells and published by The Hawthorn Press in Binghamton, N.Y.

My Favorite Garden

Share your gardens and gardening experiences with us by sending a typed story of 1,200-1,500 words, along with color slides or photos, to My Favorite Garden, c/o GRIT Magazine, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609. Please include your daytime telephone number and SASE for photo return.
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Title Annotation:My Favorite Garden
Author:Craig, Christie
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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