Gardening with the Disabled

By National Gardening Association Editors

Therapeutic Gardening has blossomed among the residents of New Jersey's Department for Persons with Disabilities. The residents have been inspired to grow both vegetables and herbs; working alongside staff they have learned to garden and inspired the community around them. At several of the homes, gardens flourish where volunteers helped transform the backyard jungles into serene landscapes.

Since 1971 the DPD has provided residential, vocational, social and spiritual programs for persons with developmental disabilities. Beginning with just 2 residents forty years ago, the DPD's programs now consists of nine group homes, 2 supervised apartments and one vocational day program throughout the Passaic, Sussex and Morris counties in New Jersey.

Over 100 community volunteers, ranging from high school students to senior citizens, help out at all of the residential locations. They work alongside the DPD residents to help with yard work and maintaining the gardens. Throughout the last three years volunteers from the Catholic Heart Work Camp (CHWC) have lent a helping hand to the DPD's residents; they have cut hedges, raked leaves, pulled out vines and bushels of weeds, and have revitalized the yards and gardens of several of the group homes.

Gardening has been incorporated in the DPD's mission of providing "every person the right and the need to actively participate in society and to learn and grow in the community." Residents take pride in the transformation of their home environment where they exercise their independence and work towards common goals. They see projects through from start to finish, learning about their own abilities and striving to meet their fullest potential. Planting transforms dependents into caretakers, empowering residents to care for another living thing and restoring a sense of control. Horticulture therapy has been used for centuries as a treatment for psychological and physical rehabilitation. The University of Florida Extension notes the benefits of gardening that include: Stress reduction, building self-esteem, increased problem solving, developing of nurturing relationships, increased social interaction, responsibility, sensory stimulation, and the lessening of pain as well as the ease of emotional pain.

The healing benefits of gardening continue to shine in the medical field, where patients find relief from stress and anxiety when working with plants. Additional evidence of the psychological impact of gardening is revealed through patients recovering from surgeries, cancer treatments, and those suffering from memory loss.

As for the residents of the DPD, behavior analyst Doreen Cook-Wottring, LMSW, believes that gardening has had curative and soothing benefits, "All persons are touched by and recognize beauty. The cyclical nature of gardening with its annual cycles of dormancy and rebirth speaks to all persons Gardening creates a place of serenity, peace and order for its participants. It allows our residents to access an inner spirituality while experiencing the magnificence of the outer world."

Many of the residents who have difficulty ambulating find gardening a way to exercise without having to go to the gym or run around the track. Sam, one of the DPD's residents comments "Working in the garden is fun. It is good exercise too." Gardening works all of the major muscle groups and can help burn calories. Bending, pulling, lifting, and stretching are beneficial to the development of large muscle groups; while the act of planting, use of small tools, weeding and harvesting increase control and strength of fine motor skills.

For some with developmental and physical challenges gardening tools and raised bed systems often help individuals find success in their gardening endeavors. Using large pots and raised garden beds allow individuals confined to wheel chairs access to planting fruits, vegetables, or flower beds. Choosing tools with thicker handles that are ergonomic help arthritis sufferers. For the visually impaired recommends creating a sound path with wind chimes and fountains to better lead down a smooth garden path.

Residential Counselor Marcia Price reflects on her experience this summer, "At the Fitzpatrick House we were very excited about purchasing our seeds for the garden. Both the residents and staff went to work and got the earth ready for planting. We were very happy to see the little seedlings sprout. However, this year we had a very hungry family of groundhogs that were intent on feeding on our little seedlings. The groundhogs won out!"

Residents did find success planting oregano and mint, along with a number of squash plants. They also established white loosestrife and marveled at its bright white flowers in the moonlight. Though the residents of the Fitzpatrick House did not have tomatoes and lettuce for their salads each day, they did have great fun working in their garden in the place they call home. There is no denying the benefits of gardening for adults with developmental disabilities. They learn to work together as a team, become closer with nature, improve their health through exercising, and even improve behaviorally. Gardening allows the residents to show many of their abilities. DPD Behavioral Analyst Cook-Wottring believes through gardening "the resident's possibilities are endless. As they continue to teach me about their potential and abilities, I continue to learn about mine!" The residents of the Department for Persons with Disabilities have many gifts and talents that they share each day, many of which are shown out in the garden!

For more information about the Department for Persons with Disabilities please contact Chris Brancato at 973-406-1104 or through email at [email protected]. You can also visit the DPD's website, or Facebook Page. Happy gardening to all!


Horticultural Therapy
Horticultural therapy: gardening for the disabled
Getting to the Roots of Therapy
The Visually Impaired Gardener

For other articles on the topic see:

Charlie Nardozzi "Disable Workers Distribute Free Plants"
Sarah Lineberger "Growing Kids in Accessible Gardens"
Susan Stradling "Plant a Seed, Watch a Community Grow"

How to Help:

A listing of University Centers for the Developmentally Disabled
Read more on the benefits of Horticulture Therapy

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