Skip to content

Therapeutic Horticulture and Intellectual Disabilities: Access, Advantages, and Opportunities

In an increasingly fast-paced world, the calming, therapeutic benefits of horticulture are being recognised more than ever. This is particularly true when it comes to individuals with intellectual disabilities, for whom gardening can provide a wealth of physical, cognitive and emotional advantages.

It’s crucial that we make these benefits accessible to all, regardless of capability or experience. We all know that gardening makes us feel good, but horticulture therapy is an approach that takes this concept seriously.

Horticulture For The Disabled
Spending time in the garden is good for the soul.

Understanding Horticulture Therapy

Horticulture therapy, at its core, involves using plants and garden-based activities to promote well-being and improve quality of life. It’s been proven to have numerous health benefits, including reducing stress, improving mood, and enhancing cognitive function.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of plants to provide any real increase in self-esteem, quality of life or cognitive ability. However, there’s a growing body of research outlining the therapeutic benefits of horticulture for people with a range of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities.

  1. “An exploratory study on the effect of horticultural therapy for adults with intellectual disabilities” (source): This study aimed to fill the gap in research about the effects of Horticulture Therapy (HT) on a group. The approach included an experimental design where participants underwent HT, and their health outcomes were subsequently measured. The primary findings suggest that HT contributes to various positive health outcomes in adults with intellectual disabilities, like enhanced self-esteem and confidence.
  2. “Horticultural therapy program for the improvement of attention and sociality in children with intellectual disabilities” (source): Researchers investigated the benefits of a HT program on improving attention and social skills in children with intellectual disabilities. They used a controlled trial to assess the program’s impact, with measures of attention and social interaction as their main outcome variables. The results indicated that the program significantly improved both attention and social skills in the participating children.
  3. “A horticultural therapy program focused on succulent cultivation for the vocational rehabilitation training of individuals with intellectual disabilities” (source): This study emphasises the use of horticultural therapy, specifically succulent cultivation, for vocational rehabilitation training of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The researchers used a pre-post design to assess hand function and vocational skills before and after the intervention. The findings showed that the participants significantly improved their hand function and vocational capabilities after participating in the horticultural therapy program.

These research papers collectively demonstrate promising outcomes for the use of horticultural therapy in enhancing health outcomes, cognitive abilities, social interactions, and vocational skills in individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Therapeutic Gardening for Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy, can each present unique challenges, but therapeutic gardening can provide tailored activities that offer significant benefits.

Kevin Heinze GROW is a pioneering organisation based in Australia. It offers a range of services and initiatives aimed at delivering exceptional services to vulnerable individuals, such as those with an intellectual disability. Their model is rooted in the principles of therapeutic horticulture, and they work closely with participants to help them reach their potential through gardening.

The organisation operates several initiatives, including its core program, GROW On, as well as individualised clinical services. They also manage a number of nurseries and a cafe that are open to the public, providing not only beautiful plants but also a therapeutic environment for those who visit.

Therapeutic Horticulture Australia (THA) is another key player in the field of therapeutic horticulture. They’re a peak industry body representing this industry which is still in its infancy by promoting professionalism, science-based practices, and a place for people working in the sector to network and share ideas and experiences.

Garden Accessibility for Intellectual Disabilities

Unfortunately, many gardens and green spaces aren’t easily accessible for individuals with intellectual disabilities. This can be due to physical barriers for people who also have a physical disability, lack of suitable activities, or simply a lack of understanding about the needs of these individuals.

Garden designers and landscape architects can help by creating accessible gardens that cater to a range of abilities. For example, here are a few tips to increase accessibility:

  1. Sensory Plants: Choose plants that stimulate the senses, such as those with different textures, vibrant colours, and pleasant smells and sounds. This helps to create a more engaging and stimulating environment. (see more!)
  2. Simple Tools: Use simple, easy-to-grip tools that are appropriate for the individual’s abilities. Adaptive gardening tools designed for ease of use can be very helpful.
  3. Labels and Signs: Use large, clear labels for different plants and areas in the garden. This can help those with intellectual disabilities to learn about different plants and understand where they are located. Use uncomplicated language that can be easily understood.
Garden Accessibility for Intellectual Disabilities
Is that rainbow lorikeet feeding on the flowers of an aloe? Doesn’t it know that’s not a native Australian plant?

Garden Therapy Techniques

There are a variety of garden therapy techniques used in horticulture therapy. Sensory stimulation, fine motor skill development, and cognitive enhancement are just a few examples.

These techniques not only help with rehabilitation and mental health, but they also contribute to improved life quality.

  1. Horticultural Activities: Simple horticultural activities, such as watering plants, weeding, and planting seeds, can be therapeutic. These tasks can promote motor skills, concentration, and a sense of achievement.
  2. Propagation: One of the most popular horticulture therapy techniques is planting seeds and watching them grow, or plucking succulent leaves and propagating them. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to help something so pure as a plant begin life, and then watch it grow big and strong.
  3. Growing and Harvesting Fruit and Veg: It’s incredibly rewarding to grow your own food, and then harvest it. Annual crops like lettuce, carrots and tomatoes are a quick win, whereas fruit trees can take longer and so can provide satisfaction through delayed gratification.
  4. Sensory Exploration: Encourage individuals to touch, smell, taste (where appropriate), listen to, and observe the plants closely. This can stimulate the senses and promote relaxation.
  5. Mindfulness Exercises: Use the garden as a space for mindfulness exercises, encouraging individuals to focus on the sounds, smells, and sights around them. This can help reduce stress and promote a sense of calm.
  6. Garden Art: Incorporate art into the garden, such as painting pots or creating sculptures. This encourages creativity and provides a means of self-expression.
  7. Nature-Based Crafts: Collect leaves, flowers, or seeds from the garden to create nature-based crafts. This can be an enjoyable activity that also promotes fine motor skills.
  8. Garden Design: When somebody designs a small garden space, they take ownership of it. It’s a highly rewarding and creative task that builds self-esteem, especially when the garden is in a space where other people can admire it.

The Future of Therapeutic Horticulture

The future of therapeutic horticulture is bright, with growing recognition of its benefits and increasing interest from both home gardeners and professional landscape experts. By incorporating accessible gardening practices and promoting horticulture therapy, we can all contribute to a healthier, happier society.

Daniel’s Wrap: Cultivating Calm through Horticulture

Therapeutic horticulture offers a wealth of benefits, particularly for individuals with intellectual disabilities. However, there’s still work to be done in making gardens and green spaces more accessible.

Whether you’re a therapist, a home gardener or a professional landscape expert, why not consider how you can incorporate horticulture therapy into your work and garden spaces?

Daniel is a writer and content creator for Ozbreed, one of Australia's leading native and exotic plant breeders.

Daniel has worked in various capacities within the horticulture industry. His roles have ranged from team leader at several companies, to creator of the Plants Grow Here podcast and Hort People job board, as well as his position on the National Council for the Australian Institute of Horticulture (AIH).

He's passionate about explaining how to care for different types of plants to ensure home gardeners and professional horticulturists alike can get the most out of the plant babies.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top