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Sign, Play in the dirt because life is too short to always have clean finger nails.
Retrieved from: https://playwithdirt.blogspot.com

If anyone out there is like me, at this time of year my feelings are “O.K. winter I’ve had enough!” In my younger days I loved winter, but a lot of physical abuse leading to the onset of Arthritis and two knee replacements, it seems winter activities suddenly have far less appeal. So now in my so-called “Golden Years”, between being shut-in due to covid, reduced sunlight, and cold temperatures, the switch to daylight savings time and the slowly increasing of daytime temperatures bring about almost a feeling of euphoria.

As the world around us begins to awaken and renew itself, the warmer weather draws many people back outside to enjoy the fresh air.  As for myself, thoughts turn from dealing with snow and ice to the beginnings of planning my summer garden.

Our grocery stores now sell an enormous array of fruits and vegetables, but the majority of supermarkets today now carry plants and cut flowers. So what’s the big deal about playing in the dirt? What makes it worthwhile?

Gardening for Seniors

I remember my grandparents spending much of their summertime efforts and time in their gardens. Thinking back I also remember the pleasure it seemed to bring to them.  Seedlings on the window sills in spring to canning in the fall occupied a large portion of their lives, and they enjoyed it.

I have since learned there were considerably more benefits to them than just a use of time. In her Senior Living blog, Alissa Sauer writes about the “Benefits of Gardening for Seniors” she writes that she has found “5 Ways Gardening Boosts Senior Health”

  1. “Gardens Lowers Stress” I have always believed gardening relieving stress, weeding, although most gardeners hate it, in particular, can be relaxing. Sauer reports: “Studies have found that garden can lower levels of cortisol which can alleviate stress and even reduce high blood pressure.”
  2. “Gardening Increases Serotonin” For emotional well-being, gardening produces a feeling of self-satisfaction, a calmness, and a feeling of peace which in turn reduces any feelings of depression. Sauer reports: “One study found that contact with certain bacteria in soil triggers the release of serotonin in the brain and work as a natural anti-depressant.” This might explain why horticulture therapy is a growing form of therapy for people with depression and other forms of mental illness and has been showing positive results.
  3. “Gardening Boosts Heart Health and Reduces the Risk of Stroke” As a moderately intense exercise, gardening can be counted as part of the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. Studies have reported routine gardening can reduce the risk of heart attack and by as much as 30% for people over 60. Being outside has also shown to increase vitamin D levels and it has been suggested this can also help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
  4. “Garden Increases Mobility” Not only is gardening a great form of exercise, but it is also a terrific way to engage lesser-used muscle helping to increase flexibility and rebuilding strength.
  5. “Gardening May Boost Brain Health” No one knows the cause of Alzheimer’s and how to prevent the disease, research has shown that positive life choices may play a role in decreasing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and gardening seems to be one of those positive lifestyle choices. Gardening has been shown to engage essential life functions such as dexterity, endurance, sensory awareness, and problem-solving. According to Sauer: “Studies have found that gardening can reduce the risk of dementia by as much as 36%.”

Meaningful Hobby

Having a garden, as well as being beneficial for seniors in general, seems to have positive effects on those living with Alzheimer’s. A well-designed garden can provide several benefits, and as Christine Kennard writes: “It can be part of an Alzheimer’s treatment plan for those who are very restless or agitated and like, or need, to walk a lot.”

Kennard lists the flowing benefits”

  • “Provides physical exercise, opportunity to relieve tension, frustration, and aggression”
  • “Offers a meaningful activity”
  • “Allows the person with dementia to take care of flowers and other plants”
  • “Provides personal space for reflection and privacy”
  • “Provides time outdoors in a safe place”
  • Provides stimulation with color, smells and sounds of wildlife”

Gardens for the Disabled

With a little bit of consideration and planning, it is possible to create a pleasant, productive garden for people with disabilities. The health benefits can provide a source of socialization, stimulation, exercise, feelings of reward, and relaxation.

Gardens for people with disabilities can help to advance:

  • Communication and social skills, by having involvement in an activity with another
  • Fitness, maintaining  a garden can be a rewarding physical activity
  • Motor skills or physical ability have the potential of improving through planting and caring for a garden
  • Stress levels, gardening is a great way to relax and bring about feelings of contentment
  • Learning and new knowledge-gardening provide the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of nature and the environment as well as increasing knowledge of nutrition and healthy foods.
  • New skills, gardening develops a variety of new skills leading to confidence
  • Enjoyment, a garden is wonderful for breaking up daily routines and is a leisurely task providing a change in day-to-day activities.

Children with Autism

They are numerous benefit to being outdoors and for parents of a child with autism, it gives everyone a break and to enjoy the fresh air, nature and the chance to put down the tech and see insects and flowers and learn about the environment.

In an article on the autismjourney website, Edward Sloane comments: “for children with autism, gardening has some benefits,” and below is Sloane list of how gardening can help:

“It can encourage positive behavior”
Many of those within the autism spectrum have difficulties keeping their emotions in check, thus parents and support people find their behavior out of control, and these supporters struggle to find ways to enhance positive behavior.

Sloane finds: “Having gardening as a hobby is a great way to encourage them to show positive behavior.” Sloane finds: “It puts their focus and attention on planting and tending to the flowers, It helps to cut bad behavior as they enjoy working outside in the garden. You will soon notice an improvement in their behavior when they  spend time gardening with family and friends.”

“It teaches the child to cooperate and work with others”
Socialization is an important part of working with those dealing with autism. Sloane believes: “Gardening is a great way to help them to communicate as they have to speak to others while gardening. They can work with someone else to dig and plant the flowers, Even gardening with a parent or close friend will give them a chance to build on their socialization skills.”

“It is a quiet and calm hobby in a safe environment”
Noisy unfamiliar environments for those with autism,  it can be challenging to control their behavior, they can become withdrawn and shy. Having gardening as a hobby provides them with an environment they soon learn to know and provides a place where they feel safe and secure, they can find quiet solitude in the familiar surroundings of their garden.

“It will help them follow instructions”
Another challenge for children of the autism spectrum is following instructions. Focusing on one task and then shift to another can be problematic, gardening is a great way to exercise the skills needed to follow instructions. Through gardening they learn the steps to build a successful garden, they receive the rewards of doing a good job by following instructions.

”It can teach them responsibility and leadership”
Through gardening, those with autism develop responsibility skills while being relied on for the day-to-day tending of the garden. The routine of watering and weeding and being sure the garden is well cared for helps them to understand the concept of responsibility and adds to leadership skills by taking charge of the garden maintenance.

“It helps them put their motor skills into practice”
For those on the spectrum who are faced with the inconvenience of difficulties with fine motor skills in their daily life, gardening can help to control movements. The repetitive motions needed to dig, plant, water, weed, and use garden tools provide practice to improve control eye-hand coordination skills.

Gardens and the Visually Impaired

Sensory Garden with Aromatic flowers
retrieved from: https://www.chicagobotanic.org/gardens/sensory

There is something about spring, the warmth of the sun on your face, the sounds of returning wildlife and the sweet smells of the new foliage come back to life. These are all sensory experiences that we all enjoy. Even with declining vision, other senses take over enhancing the experience of spring and the pleasure of gardening.

Building a sensory garden for people with visual impairment requires some important considerations: 

  • The number one most important requirement for a sensory garden is safety. What is critical for those with visual difficulties is navigation. Straight paths need railing and texture changes for changes in topography. Avoid plants, bushes, and flowers with thorns. Also, avoid plants that may be poisonous if accidentally ingested, or those that could cause an allergic reaction, as with poison ivy or poison oak.
  • The fragrance is a critical aspect of a sensory garden. Many people with visual impairments can have a heightened sense of smell and over-powering fragrances can be unpleasant. Selecting plants with less intense scents can produce a more pleasurable experience and greater interest. Selecting plant varieties with subtle sents such as chocolate cosmos, honeysuckle, carnations, chamomile, daphne, and gardenias can be used to help visually impaired visitors find their way around the garden.
  • Touch and taste add another sensory encounter to enhance the garden. Pussy willow and wooly thyme chenille can provide a tactile variation, while nasturtiums, hibiscus, mints, herbs and spices, berries, fruit trees, and of course vegetables are all great additions for the garden explorers.
  • A sensory garden would not be complete without accounting for auditable elements. Windchimes, a water feature such as a relaxing fountain, the chirping sounds of birds at a feeder or birdbath, the buzzing of bees and hummingbirds add to stimulate the sense of sound to the garden experience.

Well Designed Garden
Obviously, from the wide variation in possibilities, a well-designed garden there is not a one size fits all solution. There is a great deal of understanding and considerations to be thought through before ripping up your backyard. For some cases, the safest result may come about by consulting with a professional landscape designer.

For the average gardener, here are a few ideas to start with to begin to create an accessible garden.

  • Raised Planting beds at a comfortable height allowing for gardening without having to bend as far, or raised planting boxes allowing for access to plants at a height compatible with a wheelchair.
  • Garden pathways that are smooth and even without steep gradients or steps and low glare.
  • Pathways should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • Avoid dark or shadowed areas that can be mistaken as holes by people having problems with sight, or people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
  • Seats in a shady area where a person can sit and enjoy the garden on a hot day.
  • Planting beds or planting containers no wider than 2 feet wide, allowing for access on one side.
  • Consider adding a ground cover crop or mulch to reduce the need for weeding.

Care to take While Gardening

Raised Garden Beds

Preparing Your Garden Soil

According to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the CDC recommends the following of these precautions while you’re gardening:

We are all exposed to a little arsenic every day. The recommendations below are for people who want to keep their exposure to the minimum possible. These recommendations are intended to be on the safe side. Under normal circumstances, a lapse in following these recommendations will not, by itself, lead to health problems.

  • Increase the organic matter in your soil by adding compost or manure from outside sources such as commercial garden centers.
  • Keep soil pH in the near-neutral range (pH 6-7). For a soils test, check with your local agricultural extension office or purchase a soils test kits at a garden center.
  • Maintain adequate levels of plant nutrients by using a balanced commercial fertilizer.
  • Maintain adequate levels of iron in your soil.
  • Consider building a raised-bed garden. Fill it with topsoil and compost from outside sources or areas of your yard that do not have elevated levels of arsenic.

Note: Do not use chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated wood to build your raised garden beds. CCA contains arsenic that can leach into your soil. Use a safer nonarsenic pressure-treated wood such as ammoniacal copper quaternary (ACQ). Bricks, stone, or other wood products such as cedar or redwood can be used to build a raised garden bed.

Working in the Garden and Yard

  • Avoid eating or drinking while working in the yard or garden because contaminated soil and dust might get on your food and you could accidentally swallow it.
  • Dampen soils with water before you garden to limit the amount of dust you inhale.
  • Avoid working in the yard on windy days, when dust can be stirred up and possibly increase your exposure.
  • Consider wearing a mask if you spend time in dusty areas.
  • Wash your hands after gardening.
  • Wash work clothes to remove dust and dirt.
  • Take your shoes off at the door to avoid tracking soil into your home.

Preparing Fruits and Vegetables

  • Clean your hands, cutting boards, and kitchen tools with hot, soapy water and rinse well before and after handling your fruits and vegetables.

Soak garden produce in cool water and rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Commercial vegetable cleaning products are available in supermarkets to help free soil

  • residues from your produce. These products work well with leafy vegetables. Vinegar can also be used for cleaning produce.
  • Scrub firm fruits and root crops with a vegetable-cleaning brush to remove dust and dirt before peeling or eating.
  • Peel root crops like carrots, rutabagas, radishes, and turnips.
  • Wash berry fruits like strawberries and blackberries, and remove the “caps” (the tops of the berries where the stem and leaves attach).

Buy Some, Grow Some

Eat some fruits and vegetables from your garden and some from the farmer’s market or grocery store. Eating a mix of homegrown and commercial products can help reduce your potential exposure.

Creating Play Areas for Children

  • Fill sandboxes with sand or soil from an outside source such as a commercial gardening center.
  • Cover bare soil with grass or other material such as mulch.
  • Keep children from playing in contaminated soil. The most likely way for children to become exposed to arsenic is from ingesting (eating) dirt.
  • Have children wash hands and faces after they play in the yard.

Cleaning Your Home

  • Remove work and play shoes before entering your house.
  • Damp-mop floors and wipe down counters, tables, and window ledges regularly.
  • To reduce dust levels in the home, consider upgrading your vacuum cleaner bags to those that filter better or simply change your bags more often. Some persons may want to buy a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter to better reduce dust levels.
  • Wash the soil from homegrown fruits and vegetables before bringing them into your home.
  • Keep pets out of areas of contaminated soil. Dogs and cats carry contaminated soil on their feet and fur into the home. Bathe your pets frequently.

For more information about ATSDR’s work at Spring Valley, visit our web site at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/springvalley or contact any of ATSDR’s Spring Valley Team members:

Gardening Ergonomics

Many ergonomic design tools are made to be adaptable for people with disabilities and also to allow seniors with physical limitations to continue enjoying gardening. All of these designs have the enhancement of the gardening experience in mind for everyone.

From plans for raised gardening boxes to pre-built boxes, there seems to be a wide variety of equipment that can easily be found online or in many gardening stores and are available for any gardening enthusiast.

So go out enjoy the warm fresh air and the peaceful pleasure of gardening, no excuses.

Works Cited:

Kennard, Christine. (2020). Planning a Garden for Persons With Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellhealth.com/alzheimers-garden-plan-98084

McLendon, Lauria. (2020). 5 WAYS GARDENING BOOSTS SENIOR HEALTH. Retrieved from: https://inletcoastalresort.com/5-ways-gardening-boosts-senior-health/

Sloane, Edward. (2021). The many benefits of gardening for autistic children. Retrieved From: https://autismjourney.org/benefits-gardening-for-children-with-autism/

Sauer, Alissa. (2021). Benefits of Gardening for Seniors. Retrieved from: https://www.leisurecare.com/resources/benefits-of-gardening-for-seniors/

GardenExpert999, Dengarden. (2020). How to Design a Sensory Garden for the Blind or Visually Impaired. Retrieved from: https://dengarden.com/gardening/How-to-Design-a-Sensory-Garden-for-the-Blind-or-Visually-Impaired

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2015). Tips for Safe Gardening, Safe Play, and a Safe Home. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/springvalley/svgardening.html

Additional Information:


https://www.healinglandscapes.org/ (Therapeutic Landscape Network)






http://www.universaldesignstyle.com/wheelchair-accessible-gardens/ (2013 Wheelchair Accessible)


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