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Gardening relieves stress, keeps physical, mental skills sharpcomment (0)

May 4, 2006

By Carrie Brown McWhorter

Since God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, humans have tended the earth. Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with references to plants, vines and other growing things, and Jesus frequently used examples from the garden in His teaching, as in the parable of the sower and the seed. 
In recent years, research studies have proven what practical experience has always known — whether a garden covers multiple acres or a small window box, the individual who tends it benefits physically, emotionally and even spiritually from the exercise of caring for the plants.
Geraldine Owens of Fruithurst Baptist Church in Cleburne Baptist Association is one of thousands of Alabama Baptists that make gardening part of their lives. As a young child, she tagged along with her parents as they gardened, growing vegetables for the family and flowers in the yard. Gardening continued to be part of her life as she raised her children and taught at the local elementary school.
The hobby has continued into Owens’ retirement years. She is now working to become an Alabama Master Gardener certified through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
Owens sees the work as an opportunity to share her faith and her love of gardening at the same time. “If you are a Christian, you’re going to show that wherever you are, and you never know what kind of connections you are going to make with other people,” she said.
For Christians, the cycle of planting, tending and harvesting has deep spiritual meaning, said Jerry Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church, Fairhope, in Baldwin Baptist Association.
“God has put order in the universe, and that order is the seasons,” Henry said. “When we see the azaleas blooming or the sunset at the bay, we’re reminded afresh that God is in control of this world.
“God’s imprint is all over His creation, like sticky notes planted all over that say, ‘I love you,’” he continued. “When we see life come back each spring, it says God is still involved in this world.”
In recent years, the field of horticultural therapy has sought to bring the natural benefits of gardening to people with temporary and permanent physical ailments.  
In many hospital and long-term care facilities, horticultural therapists work as part of the rehabilitation team to involve patients in all phases of gardening. Research studies have shown that senior adults, particularly those coping with dementia, recuperating from strokes and heart attacks and living in long-term care facilities, experience significant increases in psychological well being after participating in horticultural programs. 
Leo Wagner, who runs the horticultural therapy program at Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, said that senior adults, especially, benefit from the mental and physical demands of garden therapy. “Some people ... get to a point where they don’t feel they are contributing anymore,” he said. “Gardening helps them by giving them a sense of purpose, a sense of nurturing something and helping it grow.”
Wagner said some even use the library to research plants and techniques. “Gardening gives them something new to learn and keeps their minds focused on the task.”
Gardening on any scale also requires an individual to use physical skills. “Gardening requires movement of joints and keeping your mind and fingers able to do tasks like picking up small seedlings,” Wagner said. “And if the work is in the greenhouse or outside, it provides exposure to a little light and fresh air as well.”
Suzy Shepherd, garden therapy state chairman for The Garden Club of Alabama Inc., has volunteered in garden therapy programs with senior adults for many years. 
“Many older adults love nature and gardening, so our main goal is to help them find something they can do wherever they are,” Shepherd said. This includes making dish gardens, bird feeders and seasonal flower arrangements.
In addition to volunteer programs, therapeutic gardens and gardening programs are becoming more and more common at health care facilities across Alabama. Last August, Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham dedicated the Healing Garden, a community garden project featuring fruit trees, flowers and vegetable beds, as well as water sculpture and other visual arts elements. Located on the Princeton campus, the garden serves as a therapeutic tool for hospital staff, residents of Princeton Towers — senior-housing apartments on the Princeton campus — and their families. It is also open to residents of the nearby community.  
Brenda Johnson, director of Princeton Towers, said that the Healing Garden has meant a lot to residents. “They can smell the flowers and enjoy the different types of herbs that are growing in the garden,” she said. “And they really enjoy it for the feeling of being able to sit out there and have their own thoughts and reminisce about yesterday.”
This is just one way individuals benefit from enjoying the fruits of another’s labor in a garden setting, said Janet Szofran, coordinator of Garden Reach — the horticultural therapy program at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. “Enjoying a garden that someone else has tended involves the stress-relieving aspects of being surrounded by the soothing color of green and being fascinated by a garden creates a sense of ‘being away’ from the usual stresses of life,” she said.
As for Owens, she plans to use her gardening skills to help landscape the new sanctuary at her church.
“There’s no better place to get together with God than out in His creation,” Owens said.
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