Horticultural Therapy

Connie at Holton Home
Connie at Holton Home

Written By

Abigail Healey

Written on

February 21 , 2014

The day is warm and clear. I am in my work uniform, which consists of shorts and a tank top; this is all I can stand to put on, for the heat of early summer is strong upon us. My supervisor, an elderly woman who needs the assistance of a walker to get around, is wearing a light sweater and long pants. “Aren’t you cold?” she asks suspiciously, as she watches me turn the soil in a bed designated for the season’s heirloom tomatoes.
Another set of supervisors sits in the weatherproof chairs that have been set out for their use. They are a group of women in their 70s and 80s who often sit together; today they soak in the sun and reminisce about their parents’ and grandparents’ gardens as I pull up small spring carrots for them to eat as they sit.
The characters that populate my working world are not really supervisors in that they write my checks and have the power to fire me; they are supervisors in that they take their landscape seriously, and watch carefully to make sure I do, too, for I have the privilege of gardening where they live. I work at Holton Home, an assisted-living facility in Brattleboro, Vermont, where I plant and harvest, tend to the perennial gardens, and care for the houseplants.
I also plan and carry out garden-related activities for the seniors, which means that the garden is not an object of passive observation for Holton Home’s seniors; there are many opportunities for participation. This year we have made sauerkraut, infused vodka with raspberries from our patch, crafted skin-healing salve from the comfrey and calendula that grow abundantly in and among our flowerbeds, repotted houseplants, and forced lilac and forsythia blooms from cuttings on our land. For some residents, participation in the garden means a daily walk-through and supervision of my work, with occasional updates (“Did you notice that the butterfly bush is starting to bloom?” or “Don’t you think it might be time to bring in the geraniums? Frost coming tonight.”) Others are able to get down on the ground and help weed, or make sure that the cherry tomatoes are picked before they fall from the vine. And some are observers, content to simply sit and enjoy the sunshine as the work goes on around them.
Whatever the case, an active and vibrant garden allows the residents to remain current with the seasons, remember years gone by, exercise their muscles as they mix soil, weed, or deadhead perennials, create connections with other residents as they work together on a shared task, assume responsibility for a living thing, and so much more. At Holton Home, we find that gardening is an amazingly therapeutic part of the residents’ lives.


The garden at Holton Home is a work in progress. When I started gardening there, the garden was lovely to look at but challenging for residents to get into. The vegetable patch was set directly into the ground, with merely a grass strip running down the middle. During gardening activities with residents, I often had to turn people away for lack of anything they could reasonably and safely do, especially if they were unable to get down on the ground to weed, or bend over to hoe. I watched one woman with Parkinson’s fall as she was trying to harvest tomatoes; she wasn’t hurt, but she took out two tomato plants as she fell. Another resident fell squarely in a bed of green beans. I realized that we needed a change if we wanted the garden to work for everyone. I went to the director of the home and pled my case; the garden was so important to the residents and to the home, but we weren’t supporting them in their desire to be involved. Furthermore, it was getting dangerous. She agreed, and set in motion a campaign to redesign the garden with accessibility in mind.
We decided our garden needed two basic changes to accommodate residents’ limited mobility: a smooth surface for traveling on and raised garden beds for ease of harvesting, weeding, and planting. We envisioned a walkway through the middle of the garden that would be a continuation of the walking path that went through the rest of the property. Concrete pavers would create a smooth surface that walkers and wheelchairs could safely navigate. Family and friends could donate to the project by purchasing special memorial stones. We would build several large raised beds tall enough to accommodate those who could not bend over and those in wheelchairs; the concrete pavers would extend all the way around the raised beds, so that people could reach them from all sides. Other areas of the garden would be planted in “high” foods, such as high-bush blueberries, pole beans, and cherry tomatoes, so that people would be able to harvest while standing safely on the walkways.
We knew that our garden plan would sacrifice space for accessibility. We were losing tillable, sunny land to concrete pavers, so as we changed the design of the garden, we also had to change the purpose of the garden. Originally, the garden’s purpose was to supply the kitchen with fresh vegetables, but it was an awkward and difficult relationship. The garden was not big enough or sunny enough to supply a kitchen that needed to feed 40 people at each meal. As the garden shrank to accommodate people’s needs, we decided to repurpose the smaller growing space as a “snacking” garden. Residents would have first dibs for eating in the garden, and we would be sure to plant fruits and vegetables that could be eaten or enjoyed right out of the ground. Cucumbers, green beans, cherry tomatoes, carrots, radishes, raspberries, strawberries, and high-bush blueberries dominated our list; the kitchen could use whatever remained.


Gardens are being crafted into the landscapes of schools, hospitals, and nursing homes everywhere because they encourage healthy participation in life and act as a powerful tool for learning new skills and creating relationships. I remember the time we had just planted a raised bed full of richly colored annuals; the bed was a tabletop style, which allowed for easy access for those with walkers and wheelchairs, as they could get their legs underneath the bed if need be. After traveling to the nursery down the road to select the plants and then working together to plant the bed, the residents were delighted to have some real ownership over a part of the garden. When we finished with the task at hand, one man lingered over his handiwork for another half an hour, gently running a hand tool through the freshly mixed soil around his newly planted flowers. That simple act, with the accompanying sensory delights of warm sun and richly scented soil, was full of memory and happiness for him.
Another time, I worked alongside a resident who had a hard time getting up and down, but with my help she was able to get down to ground level and move along, pulling weeds and chatting. She was early in her battle with dementia, and often could not remember the events of the last few hours, but that day she vividly and joyfully recounted stories of her dog and young children in her own garden 50 years earlier. For her, the garden offered a context in which her memories were fresh and present, and created a stage from which she could be a storyteller about her past.
It is so important to all of us that we are needed, and important. Gardens at eldercare facilities or other institutional care settings can help foster this sense of being needed and responsible for something outside of oneself. Mary Dauphinais, a resident at Holton Home, has taken a lot of responsibility for the houseplants and perennials through watering, planting bulbs, and making decisions about new perennials to purchase. She is always ready to use her plant reference books to research which kind of plant a mystery newcomer is, or what it might need if it is ailing.
“Taking care of the plants…[and having] something that I would make it my duty to do—it takes up a lot of time, and you have something to be responsible for,” she says. Of last year’s garden, she recalls, “It helped keep me going. I could get into the plants.”
For elders living in a care facility where, sadly, much of what was once familiar has been stripped away, a garden is an essential part of staying connected to life. For me, this job has been essential to my own staying connected to reality; for in my work, I am not permitted to forget the elderly, and their special needs and concerns, as I have been throughout much of my life. In their world, death is all around, especially when they live among other elders. The garden is a special place, then, where life abounds and the spring will always come again. I am in a unique position where I get to bring this life and this newness to a group that is hungry for that kind of positivity. Having the opportunity to engage with both worlds—the vivacity of the growing plants and the quiet reflection of age—is at once humbling and sublime.

About the Author

Abigail Healey

Abigail Healey

Abigail Healey is a writer and gardener in Brattleboro. She believes that every school, prison, mental health hospital, and nursing home deserves a garden (or several). She has published essays about parenting and gardening in Hip Mama, Parent Express, and at leviandfamily.com.

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