14th June, 2018
"Every Tuesday morning for three hours, I attend a horticultural therapy session run by a small local charity. The strict definition of these horticultural sessions is: “The social and therapeutic use of gardening focused on the support needs, abilities and personal development aims of each individual”. This is a definition that despite knowing what horticultural therapy is, I find hard to understand! In my own, far simpler words horticultural therapy is: “The use of gardening as a therapeutic treatment for a range of people with varying disabilities’. Hence, not restricted solely to those whose disabilities are a result of brain injury, but as a treatment for those who have a range of physical and/or mental health problems who may benefit from the therapy.
Because of my brain injury, I have physical and cognitive impairments that I find greatly benefit from these weekly sessions. Each attendee is referred to as a ‘gardener’ and usually works with a volunteer. The sessions are overseen by a trained horticultural therapist.
Each gardener is given an allotment for personal use and given the opportunity to decide what to use it for such as growing edible and ornamental plants. Tending the needs of my allotment requires me to push the limits of my physical mobility, within a safe and monitored environment. Navigating my way to and from my allotment proved to be enough of a challenge for the first few weeks of my attendance. For example, there is a large bush between the entrance of the site and my plot. Due to the lack of my left sided peripheral vision, and the combination of unfamiliar surroundings and uneven ground, I managed to unwittingly stride straight into it on multiple occasions to the demise of the bush more than myself, where my pride was bruised more than my body.
From a physical perspective, my left sided weakness is challenged through general gardening tasks such as weeding, planting as well as using and carrying gardening tools in a safe manner. Attending horticultural therapy has highlighted this issue, making me more aware of it and therefore allowing me to make a more conscious effort to use my left side whilst gardening.
From a cognitive perspective, the sessions boost my mood because I am in the great, outdoors and able to socialise with some like-minded people. I have also improved my horticultural knowledge and skills as well as gained a passion for gardening. The cognitive and physical benefits to horticultural therapy vary between individuals depending on the nature of their disability as well as its severity. Importantly, the sessions are genuine fun and an activity I look forward to each week.
I am currently working on a project inspired by the Eden Project. I am trying to replicate some of the environments from the Eden project in a raised bed. These include a marsh/bog, alpines and a desert. I have researched the soil content e.g., drainage and pH, and how temperature affects plant growth native to the specific environments. I have grown all the plants for this project from seed tendering their growth each week – not always successfully! This project has tested my cognitive and physical skills post brain injury and helped improve these hampered abilities or at least develop new strategies to counteract blockers that inhibit my potential.
During the initial months at the sessions, I found it very hard week on week to remember what tasks I was doing the previous week and how I had left things. I sought the advice of the horticultural therapist, who provided me with an exercise book in which to make notes at the end of each session on what I had done and achieved, the idea being that the following week I would refer to this at the start of the session to help optimise my time. I have been using the book to log what I have done for about a year and can now get straight down to the gardening tasks I need to do each week. Because of this the sessions are now far more focused and productive.
Brain injury can be tough but from my experience there are many organisations there to support those affected. Although not always apparent, attending one organisation often offers a route to another. For me this horticultural therapy was one flagged up through Headway as a potentially suitable therapy. The onus of course is on the user and how much effort and commitment they are willing to apply. Easier some days than others!!
“ The Hospital Brain Injury Co-ordinator became someone who absolutely understood how I felt, I didn’t need to explain. I could talk about my fears and worries. She was such a great support through the difficult days, but could also celebrate the small step successes, which was important to me. ”