Chris Shelley doesn’t need a wealth of research to tell him that gardens are good for you.
“They offer a great opportunity for interaction, they boost self-worth, they help reduce a sense of isolation. Plus,” adds the activities director at Patriot Ridge Community in Fairborn, Ohio, “who doesn’t like getting outside after being inside all winter?”
Ever since a Texas A&M professor discovered in 1984 that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a room with a view of trees get better faster than patients in a windowless room, the evidence has been mounting that proximity to nature — and gardening in particular — can nurture people in a variety of ways. Pick up a trowel and lower your blood pressure, boost your immune function and reduce stress, among other things.
“In the case of hospitals and other health care facilities, there is mounting evidence that gardens … are especially effective and beneficial settings with respect to fostering restoration for stressed patients, family members, and staff,” writes Robert S. Ulrich, who led that 1984 Texas A&M study and now is professor of architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
Shelley says the garden at Patriot Ridge was started seven or eight years ago by a resident who had loved to work in his yard. It began as a modest plot in the courtyard. Raised beds were added to accommodate residents in wheelchairs and with mobility issues. Today, Shelley says about a dozen residents actively participate in the Garden Club, which meets once a week, “but we have residents out there on a regular basis.”
In the Patriot Ridge garden, the emphasis is on vegetables.
“They get to pick what they want to grow,” says Shelley.
Shelley says the garden’s appeal is broad. For some, there’s the physical benefit of working the soil. Some simply enjoy getting out to enjoy the different colors.
“And,” adds Shelley, “some just like getting out and watching it grow.”
Shelley says the gardening program will expand to Patriot Ridge’s memory support program this year. Research shows that gardening can be especially beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s disease by easing anxiety, agitation, aggression and the tendency to withdraw socially. Gardening can also provide a crucial creative outlet.
“With a disease like Alzheimer’s that limits verbal expression and communication, creativity is way to fill that void,” according to the Mayo Clinic. A creative endeavor such as gardening can “serve as a vehicle of expression.”
Of course, there’s also the ultimate benefit to gardening: the harvest.
“Tomatoes are especially popular,” says Shelley. “[Residents] love it when we make them fried green tomatoes.”
That the garden is operated on the Little Red Hen principle — help grow it and you can eat it — offers added incentive for residents to roll up their sleeves.
“Sometimes we have to put up signs for residents not to pick the vegetables,” says Shelley. “Our gardeners like to reap what they sow.”