Therapeutic community gardening
Community gardening for us is about bringing people together with nature, to grow healthy food (and healthy people).
There are so many benefits that arise from this simple activity, and over the years we have developed more and more focus on the therapeutic aspects of our work here at Petworth Community Garden.
Our members from all walks of life have told us how their health, mental wellbeing and confidence has improved over their time at the garden, and anyone who has spent any time in a garden knows how pleasurable it can be to all our senses.
Gardening is an accessible way to nourish our innate need for nature and wild, bring many documented benefits to us ‘modern’ humans who are more and more cut off from the natural world, this feeling of wellness from even small amounts of contact with nature has been researched and termed the biophylia effect in the book, ‘Biophilia’by E. O. Wilson.
We are also often feel cut off from each other in our modern ‘individualistic’ society, and community gardening offers us an opportunity to carry out tasks side by side, talking and joking , with a common goal of growing food, caring for our garden, and as it often turns out, each other.
An accessible community garden can act as a stepping stone back into society, for those on the edge or suffering from isolation due to many different issues, a gentle, non judgemental helping hand to integrate with other members of the community.
Generosity and acceptance
Over the years in our garden, so much gentle encouragement and support has been offered, received and offered out again, by people who often have very little in material goods or health, but incredible generosity of spirit which often emerges when faced with others struggles. The social support and the feeling of being accepted in a group as who we are ‘warts and all’, is a vital part of the nourishment that we all receive here.
It has always been a fundamental ethic of ours to be as accessible to as many people in our community as we can be. We have created wheelchair access raised beds and paths, fundraised for a wheelchair access compost toilet and an accessible activity shed and have created two sensory garden areas on our plot. We work in a mixed community group, with parents and children, older people, people with learning difficulties, and people with physical, mental health or social issues, amongst other locals.
Supporting adults with learning difficulties
We work alongside projects such as ‘ Work Aid’, at the Aldingbourne Trust, where adults with learning difficulties are found volunteer placements with us and, after regular attendance and training, may be able to find paid work.
We really see the benefit of working in a mixed diverse community group where all are accepted and all abilities celebrated. It is of huge benefit for all members of our group to meet with and work with people who they may not normally mix with in daily life, to drink tea, eat cake, and enjoy homemade soup from the harvest together, and learn about each other, enjoying each other’s company. In a diverse group, we can drop our ‘labels’ and just be who we are, human beings with our own particular quirks and foibles.
More specialist therapeutic horticulture
In recent years we have been working with people with more severe and specialist needs, offering focused social and therapeutic horticultural sessions that include plenty of sensory work and opportunities to enjoy the garden and gardening related activities whatever their ability. We have hosted groups of young people from special needs schools locally, such as Ingfield Manor school, where young people with cerebal palsey and other motor disorders, are given opportunities to garden with us in our wheelchair accessible raised beds. St Anthonys school and Fordwater school are other local special needs schools that have come and benefitted from our garden activities.
Accessible tools and resources
We have invested in specialist hand tools with wrist handles or long shafts, and seed tapes and accessible seed sowers in order to allow all tasks to be achieved, even for those with extremely limited motor skills. Everything then becomes accessible and possible, from preparing the ground, to sowing the seeds, watering, weeding, mulching and eventually harvesting.
The pride and joy engendered by being given the opportunity to do gardening tasks independently and to be able to see (and eat) the fruit of their labours, is a privilege to witness. The determination to master limited motor skills and be able to ‘do it myself’ is awe inspiring and humbling, as tasks many people would simply take for granted can be a monumental challenge, something as simple as sowing some seeds in the ground, becomes a major achievement.
Harry is a member of our group that has been coming to us since 2011. He is a young man who is a wheelchair user with severe learning difficulties. He is non verbal, with limited motor skills in just one hand and needs to have a one on one carer 24/7 as he suffers from extreme epilepsy. He is also a total dude with a great sense of humour, loves music and can rock his wheel chair back into stunning wheelies! He has incredible sensory perceptions, and refuses outright to wear gloves, as his hands are his main contact with the world.
It has been such a pleasure working with Harry, and we create a sensory programme for him according to the season. The best seeds for sensory experience so far are broad beans, each little ridge is explored delicately, and when sowing seeds, we have a mixed box of out of date seeds that he can feel, rattle, enjoy, before sowing seeds, experiencing compost or soil, digging with our specialist tool, watering, or mulching with grass clippings, and of course picking (and eating) the harvest. Many other activities include; scarecrow making, he loves stuffing the straw into clothes; creating wildlife homes, making fat balls for the birds and a myriad of other tasks. Most of all, he loves being with the group, and particularly enjoys the children.
Recently his mum visited us, and was amazed at his progress. We had bought him a spray for the end of a hose so that he could squeeze that with support, and he had learnt over the weeks to squeeze it by himself, and when his mum visited he had a fantastic time spraying it up, left right and at anyone who happened to walk by! If we were particularly purist, we wouldn’t be using a hose, and mostly don’t, as we collect water in many water butts around the site, and encourage all to water with watering cans. However in Harry’s case, finding him a user friendly hose nozzle allowed him to learn, have a choice and some precious control over where he wanted to water and how. His mum was clearly moved and couldn’t believe he was doing it on his own.
Small simple steps can bring huge rewards
Human beings are not ‘one size fits all’, and by celebrating diversity and individuals achievements, working with people’s skills ideas and wishes, respecting each other’s particular circumstances without judgement, together we grow more healthy, in our individual lives, communities and planet.