Sunday, March 20, 2011

Top Considerations When Building an Enabled Garden for a Retirement Community

In honor of National Horticultural Therapy Week I want to address a topic near and dear to my heart- Horticultural Therapy or Garden Therapy programs.  I started working with Seniors primarily by planning and teaching Garden therapy projects and have expanded my Senior Activities business to include Art, Music and other activities. 
Working in our raised beds at the Village of Richardson

If your community decides they are interested in having a garden on site- here are a few key points to consider before jumping in:
Your first consideration should always be WHO? 

Who will take responsibility for overseeing, planning and maintaining your garden?  There needs to be someone willing and able to take a lead role.

Are enough members of your community interested in maintaining a garden?  Do you have a staff member who is knowledgeable about gardening that can design the garden plus plan and lead garden therapy activities? Or will you need help from an outside contractor (like Elder Life Engagement) to design your garden and plan your activities?  Are there local volunteer groups like Master Gardeners, Boy Scout troops, church groups or a garden clubs willing to help plan the garden, build raised beds and assist with your project?  

Next consideration-WHERE! 

Where will your garden be located on the property and what type of garden will it be?

The location of your garden is very important because it will determine the type of plants you can grow due to sun exposure and water availability.  If you want to have a kitchen or culinary garden and grow herbs and vegetables- then your beds will need at least 6 to 8 hours of “sunbathing” direct sunlight each day.  If your desire is to have a cutting garden , rose garden or butterfly garden- you will need to have a good amount of sun for most flowers to grow well- especially roses.  If you want to create a serene Zen or meditation garden with ferns, moss, water features and shade flowers, then a shaded or tree covered area will work best for you.

When designing your garden- make sure the paths are built wide and easily accessible to those in wheelchairs and walkers- at least 3- 3½’ in width.  The main paths should be paved and secondary paths should have packed crushed rock- especially between and around beds for easy wheelchair access.  There should be plenty of shade provided and seating areas dispersed within the garden.  Remember- Seniors really don’t like to get too much sun or be too cold- ever!

Another very important consideration is how the garden will be watered.  If you have a water source nearby and lots of extra time, you may choose to hand water your beds or containers and set up a calendar to remind caretakers when and how much they should water.  However, designing your garden beds with a drip irrigation system is optimal as it saves money, time and water by slowly releasing water only to your plants as needed.

In addition to a drip irrigation system, you could consider connecting rain water barrels to your drip system and collect rainwater from your facilities’ roof.  Many facilities already have an irrigation system in place to water the grounds, and that type of irrigation system can be incorporated into your plan as well.

When planning your garden, be sure to group plants with similar water needs together- thus plants are not under or over watered and you save valuable natural resources and money in the process.  If you are planning a flower, butterfly or wild life garden do you want to plant perennials that come back year after year, annuals for a pop of color or a combination of both types of plants?  And with Memory Care residents, you must always be certain that your plants are not toxic or harmful if eaten by a resident.

Finally-WHAT!  What type of garden containers will you have?

Will you choose to use portable containers like large pots, window boxes or half wine barrels for your garden?  The optimal choice is to build accessible planters or raised beds so those who use walkers or wheel chairs can access both sides and the middle of the bed.  Beds or containers should only be 3 feet wide so that the middle of the bed can easily be reached from any side.  Having raised beds at different heights insures that both Seniors who can stand to garden and seated Seniors can access the beds easily.  Another container option is using low hanging baskets or a specially designed vertical wall garden for herbs or succulents. 

Regular beds are difficult for Seniors to maintain since many cannot bend, kneel or squat to place plants or pull weeds for long periods of time.

Gardening is an excellent activity for Elders.  With a well thought-out and designed garden, a dedicated Horticultural Therapist or program leader, and enthusiastic participants -your garden will provide years of enjoyment for your participants, your retirement community and their loved ones.

Until next time- Hope you enjoy the first week of Spring and many beautiful days to come!


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