What’s not to love about getting out into the fresh air, digging in the dirt, nurturing seedlings and watching nature magically transform them into edible plants packed with health-giving nutrients.
Fresh herbs and vegetables are not just a boon for physical health; growing them can have mental health benefits as well. In recognition of this, some Australian hospitals and aged care centres have introduced edible gardens for staff and residents.
Reducing staff burnout
Brisbane’s Mater hospital is piloting a therapeutic edible garden project for its staff to grow herbs and veggies and help buffer the increasing pressure faced by health care workers.
“There is a growing body of research on the health benefits of gardening, including its ability to reduce emotional distress, improve quality of life and increase the consumption of vegetables,” said senior research dietitian Jennifer Utters.
“For staff, it shows that taking long breaks in the garden instead of inside could help to reduce burnout reported by health workers.”
It morphed into a way to “care for the carers” according to hospital dietitian Sally McCrae, after their research showed that gardening could lower anxiety, boost wellbeing and build community. The hospital will be evaluating the project’s impact on staff wellbeing in collaboration with Bond University.
The therapeutic value of gardens has long been known – psychiatric hospitals harnessed the benefits of being in nature to treat mental illness in the early 1800s, according to Australian Ageing Agenda.
Now gardens are used globally to help people who are aging or have special needs, illness, disability or dementia. Working with horticulturalists, research has found it can improve physical and mental health, communication and cognition and reduce isolation.
Accordingly, aged care facilities are harnessing the multiple physical and mental health benefits of gardening for their residents, including sun and vitamin D exposure, reducing stress and depression, better sleep, attention, mobility and sense of control – not to mention fresh, healthy meals that residents could even cook themselves.
In can also be a therapeutic outlet for older adults who enjoyed gardening before entering residential care, enabling them to continue their passion and engage in low impact exercise in the outdoors.
Taking it a step further, Cabrini Brighton in Victoria and Dementia Australia set up a sensory herb garden for people with dementia to help them feel useful, reflect on childhood memories – which can be stimulated by smells – and spend time with family, friends and co-residents. As a bonus, the herbs can be used in the kitchen.
For aged care facilities, raised garden beds are recommended to improve ease of access. It’s also recommended that centres consider safety issues such as chemicals, water quality, foodborne illnesses from contaminated soil and promoting good hygiene practices.
For centres that don’t have the capacity to set up their own gardens, some places – especially in Melbourne and Geelong – offer shared community gardens that could serve as an enriching extra-curricular activity for residents.