When Gena Evans was looking to purchase a property in a retirement community she made no bones about the fact the sale would not go ahead unless she was afforded access to a garden facility.
A career cottage gardener and foundation member of influential Queensland enthusiast group The Perennial Poppies, the 68-year-old felt she herself would struggle for survival if deprived of the ability to dig in the dirt.
Whether it was impeccable timing, good fortune, savvy marketing or a combination of all three, just hours after mentioning her “non-negotiables” to a member of the Aveo sales team, Gena found herself perusing plans for a community garden at The Clayfield.
In the two years since, Gena and a small but passionate merry band of caretakers have, along with the original landscapers, transformed a small 25sqm horseshoe shaped piece of soil into a kaleidoscopic botanic landscape, bursting with floral and fruit bouquets.
Featuring everything from geraniums and pansies to parsley and pawpaw, it is a garden built from love with much of its content given free of charge – including many transported from Gena’s former home in Brisbane’s Paddington in addition to a bird bath and compost bin donated by village residents. In addition, some of the pansies included in the mix were originally planted by Gena’s mother-in-law before being given new life at The Clayfield where it is hoped they will endure.
Taking charge of the project has been a very personal journey for Gena who, as well as deriving much personal satisfaction from her efforts, takes great pride in witnessing the enjoyment others experience from the space. Gena says because of the dynamic of the village many residents love gardens but sadly are physically unable to tend to them anymore.
“I have a couple of ladies who help me prune and clean up. I consider I’m the luckiest person here to be able to go and work in the garden.”
Gena says while the village garden is the primary source of decoration for village events and festivities, perhaps its greatest gift has been what it has offered to residents in terms of their psychological and physical health and wellbeing.
In addition to getting residents moving physically and enjoying the benefits of being out in the fresh air in terms of calcium and vitamin D absorption, the site also affords residents purpose, she says.
“It has now become a destination. You’re on your wheelie walker and the old ladies come down and they might go away with a bunch of flowers or a bag of salad and that’s very satisfying to me. And they can’t believe their eyes. It gets them out, it gives them a purpose, we’ve got seats there and they sit around and have a cup of tea. It plays a big part in their social lives.”
Horticulturist and therapeutic gardening expert Cath Manuel, whose business Sowing Serenity runs aged care and community gardening programs, agrees the advantages gleaned from a spot of gardening – whether via a larger size community garden or by having a few plants on a balcony or courtyard – are numerous.
Manuel says aside from the physical benefits which are great for strength, flexibility, movement and the cardio vascular system, the physiological benefits are also very important.
“Gardening reduces stress and anxiety and also reduces blood pressure. There’s also the social aspect, which is especially good for people who are socially isolated. But it also balances emotional wellbeing, so people really do ‘feel good’ after being outdoors. The term is biophilia, which means we all have an innate connection with living things and to connect with living things improves our emotional wellbeing. To gather together with other green thumbs is good for the soul.”
In 2011 La Trobe University PhD candidate Joanne Adams delved into the benefits of gardening among seniors. As part of her Master of Health Sciences program, Adams interviewed in depth a select group of participants aged between 46 and 90, all of whom were experienced gardeners. She discovered that for many the act of gardening allowed them to reconnect with their past – while also looking to the future.
This was particularly true of those for whom their sense of the value of the garden was instilled by the actions of parents and grandparents, the Victorian student’s research showed.
“Particular plants were often highly significant because of the connection they represent to family members and friends, past and present. Connection to plants provided clear insight to the cycles of life – of living in the present often characterised by attachment, loss and moving on. Significantly, the garden also represented a connection to the future. Planting the seed that will in the future grow; establishing a garden that will provide habitat for birds and animals; anticipating the change of the seasons that see both growth and decline.
“For some participants connection to the future was also seen as leaving a legacy of knowledge and plantings for family members or the environment generally.”
The hidden advantages
While there has been much written about the positive benefits to gardening little attention has been given to the fact that Adams’ investigation show there may also be a spiritual element to the practice.
Adams’ found that for some the garden offered a form of resilience, a powerful means of coping in the face of grief. The significance of the garden frequently shaped the lives of participants in profound ways and for many such a connection was likened to a personal form of spirituality or religious experience, she wrote.
“Many participants expressed a greater sense of self-awareness, of themselves in relation to others as well as to the environment. For some participants in later stages of life, working in the garden created a means to focus on priorities. The garden came to represent a tool which helped them to deal with and make sense of the world. Many participants observed that their whole sense of wellbeing was tied up with the garden. Some participants came to recognise a life force beyond their own, of which they were part, and through which they gained a greater sense of self.”
But it seems it’s not just able bodied active seniors in full health, or those with extensive gardening experience, who have the most to gain from spending time conversing with nature.
Kevin Heinze Grow (KHG) is registered with the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Commonwealth Home Support Program and designs horticulture-based therapy programs for stroke survivors as well as those with acquired brain injury, experiences of significant trauma, dementia, and/or mental health concerns.
CEO Josh Fergeus says KHG uses gardening to reduce the negative impacts of social isolation, but also increase health and wellbeing through increased physical activity, enhanced fine motor skills and the proven benefits of horticultural therapy.
“This interaction with nature and with others in the natural environment can reduce cortisol levels, improve mental health, and increase cognitive function,” he says.
“Research shows that visual exposure to greenery has assisted in recovery from stress and that garden use is associated with lower levels of agitation among those with dementia in residential care.”
Gardening top tips
Balcony/Courtyard gardens: There is no need to hang up your gardening gloves just because you have moved into an urban area with a patio in place of fertile grounds. Consider building a raised garden bed and placing it on your balcony. By taking this option, not only do you have the choice of which flowers, herbs or foliage to plant, you can also opt to keep the bed just slightly above ground level or add legs to it to make it waist height to spare bending. Another option for this type of space is to try growing an assortment of plants in patio pots.
Hanging gardens: If you are really clever you may like to consider building the hanging planters yourself but if, like the rest of us convenience is key, then it’s probably easier just to purchase a pre-made hanging planter from your nearest gardening centre. Petunias, geraniums and succulents work best in Australian conditions. Whatever you do make sure you take the time to ensure you rig the planter correctly to eliminate the chance of it falling and also ensure the planters are kept moist.
Vertical gardens: Vertical gardens, sometimes referred to as green living walls, are a great and versatile way to add greenery without compromising on space in tiny courtyards. Low-maintenance and suitable for indoor and outdoor spaces, not only can they be used to draw attention to an area they are equally adept at disguising an unattractive view. Hardy plant varieties such as Flax lilies, mondo grass, spider plants, devil’s ivy and almost any type of herb are all great options. While relatively self-sufficient, it’s important to regularly feed your vertical garden with water and nutrients to ensure its ongoing vitality.
Indoor plants: These are an ideal way to add some life to the interior of your home. Ideally you should look for varieties that will thrive in low light but also survive stagnant heat. Peace lilies and lady palms work perfectly in these types of spaces as they are extremely shade tolerant. In areas with bright lights choose tropical plants such as the dumb cane, zebra plant or prayer plant that enjoy sunny conditions.
Article originally published in Chapter magazine.
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