10 Strategies for Encouraging Independent Garden Activities

10 Strategies for Encouraging Independent Garden Activities

This article was published in the CHTA 2018 spring newsletter (Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association)

Garden Activity Signs logo

Always another resident who could benefit from the garden and never enough time! Are you one of the many horticultural therapists who work more than one part-time job and/or have a large client group? One of my jobs was to facilitate a therapeutic garden program at a long-term care facility that was home to 196 residents. I worked there two days per week for twenty years and the feeling of ‘always more to do’ never went away.

Mind you, I kept taking on new projects, renovating gardens to make them more appealing and accessible, and mentoring students and volunteers. That kept me busy too.

As time went on, my project focus turned increasingly towards strategies to encourage independent garden activities. I wanted to extend my reach to more residents, as well as provide restorative benefits to staff and family members. How could I encourage them to engage with nature and to garden while I was busy elsewhere?

I’d like to share ten strategies with you in case they might be useful in your work, and introduce you to my garden activity signs. The strategies are grouped into (1) create opportunities for nature engagement, (2) get the word out, and (3) involve people in a variety of ways.

Create Opportunities for Nature Engagement

Attract friendly wildlife

There’s nothing like friendly wildlife to attract attention. Birds, squirrels and mason bees bring the garden alive with their ephemeral charm.

Your garden program participants can assemble a chickadee nesting box from a kit. Just one per garden as the chickadees are territorial and two families won’t nest close to each other. They’ll help you keep the garden free of pesky bugs.

Black-capped chickadee

Plants with seeds and edible berries attract a variety of songbirds. Mason bees are easy to look after; they pollinate crops and they don’t sting.

The more alive the garden, the more people spontaneously engage with it. Some residents will stay out for hours to watch the bees fill their nesting box or to watch the parent chickadees fly back and forth to feed their chirping young.

Set up a potting table

Set up a potting tableThe residents no longer needed to wait until I came around with a trolley full of repotting supplies. They could take their indoor plants to the potting table and top up with soil, divide a plant or start cuttings. A fun activity when the grandkids come to visit.

Place your potting table under cover so it’s usable year-round. Add a tabletop light stand for starting seeds in early spring. A resident took charge of keeping the area tidy, and a volunteer restocked supplies.

Place tools ready for use

Set out garden tools ready for useIf a garden looks manicured, it says ‘hands off!’ If it’s messy and weedy, it sadly says ‘I’m not cared for’. There’s a casual happy medium that says ‘Lots of people love me and there’s room for you to join in too’. Strategically placing tools in the garden invites people to join in. A lightweight broom and long-handled dustpan waiting amongst fallen leaves invites sweeping. A watering can and an accessible tap offer the opportunity to quench a plant’s thirst. A small shed at the entrance to the garden makes more tools and supplies available.

Purchase garden activity signs

If the tools aren’t invitation enough, garden activity signs provide permission, encouragement and instruction: go ahead and smell that peony, touch the lambs ear leaf, and rub and sniff the lemon balm. Yes, the broom is there for you to sweep leaves; please plant that tomato seedling, and you’re welcome to pick a few beans and a couple of flowers. Such delight to engage the senses and the hands in the life of the garden.

These unique signs are available to purchase in three different styles at www.gardenactivitysigns.com.

Set of 6 sensory garden hang tags 

Get the Word Out About the Garden

Install wayfinding signs

Garden wayfinding sign in elevator

Signage can let people know there is a garden, show them the way to the garden, and welcome them to use the garden. If a second (or third) language is used, so much the better for creating a feeling of welcome.

If you’re interested in using more signs to encourage garden engagement, check out this article I wrote for Growth Point, Thrive’s newsletter (UK).

Create informational posters

Posters can invite people to engage with nature, and teach them about the evidence-based therapeutic benefits. They can also be a topic of conversation at your garden groups.

Consider including a poster with ‘Ways to Engage with Nature’ in the staff communication books, and in the welcome package for new residents and their families. Place them in staff washrooms on the wall or the door right in front of the toilet to ensure that they’re seen. Place them on bulletin boards at eye level for your audience, with consideration for people who use wheelchairs.

 A poster that invites people to care for the indoor and outdoor plants might include suggested activities, where to find tools and how to contact you with questions.

Involve People in a Variety of Ways

Offer planters to care for

When residents plant, decorate and care for their own container, each planter expresses the unique character of its owner. One resident started with a container, which grew to become her ‘meditation corner’. She arranged it to be a cozy sitting area amongst lush greenery, with the sound of windchimes and trickling water.

Meditation nook

Train garden care volunteers

I trained students and volunteers to do only those garden care tasks that the residents couldn’t do themselves, like reaching the furthest weeds, pruning up high, and moving heavy soil. That way there was always some gardening for the residents to do.

Escort residents out to enjoy the garden

Many residents make their own way to the garden whenever they wish, but other residents get outside only with assistance because of physical or cognitive barriers. I could take a few people out in my limited time, and there were students and volunteers to help. Family members take their loved ones outside, and staff sometimes have a few minutes to spare.

I met with groups of staff to let them know that the manager supported them in taking a resident out to the garden when they had time or when a resident might benefit from the calming influence of the garden. I shared some of the therapeutic benefits and suggested that taking a resident out to the garden can be a nature break for staff, a restorative few minutes in the midst of a busy work day.

Teach sensory nature techniques

The idea for creating garden activity signs came from seeing family members bring residents out to the garden and not look closely at the plants, or touch and smell them. If I showed them herbs and flowers that smell good, they seemed delighted. When I trained volunteers and staff to enjoy the sensory delights of the garden, they said it gave them more to do with the residents and created a better garden experience.

It takes a community to run a successful, sustainable garden program. As I expanded my horticultural therapy role from facilitating scheduled programs to include encouraging the community to independently engage in the garden, more people got involved, making the program richer and more beneficial to residents, family and staff.

Which of these strategies will you add to your garden program?

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