Many studies point at the connection between a green environment, nature or a blossoming garden and the sensations a person experiences, such as: serenity, peace, joy and liveliness. Gardening enthusiasts attest to the advantages of gardening and the benefits it offers them. Many regard gardening as a relaxing and joyful activity that triggers muscles and senses, and enables creative expression, the results of which are both significant and fulfilling. At its essence, gardening is universal, and crosses borders, cultures and communities.
During the past few years, a unique horticultural therapy project has been held at the Ramat Hanadiv Gardens, which are intended to be enjoyed by the general public. This project enables groups with special needs to be exposed to gardening activities and, no less important – it enables them to connect with the community and with normalcy.
At the centre of the initiative to operate the project at Ramat Hanadiv lies a concept under which great significance is associated with the involvement of people with special needs, such as those with mental retardation, who typically find themselves at the fringes of society (if not completely separated from it), in a normal work place, which enables contact with a team of workers and exposure to a large number of visitors and travellers.
Eight people aged 23-52, suffering from medium mental retardation and under the care of institutions in close vicinity to Ramat Hanadiv participate in the project and are employed in the Gardens as part of the gardening team. The group is guided on behalf of Ramat Hanadiv by two professionally trained horticultural therapists.
The horticultural therapy group is employed at Ramat Hanadiv five days a week, with a work day lasting five hours and split into two main parts: work in the area of the public Gardens at Ramat Hanadiv, and work in individual gardens of the group’s members. During the first part of the day, members of the team deal with a variety of gardening tasks, selected according to their particular capabilities: weeding, leaf raking, pruning, turning soil with a pitchfork, transfer of seedlings to flowerpots, watering and others. As part of the work at the nursery, group members fill flowerpots and planting pots with soil mixtures, arrange and transport flowerpots and more. Additional gardening activities are carried out at the therapeutic garden: sowing, planting, preparation of cuttings and transfer of seedlings.
The training of workers at the beginning of the project required that time be invested in learning and becoming acquainted with the mental and motorical skills and limitations of each of the group’s members. The group’s guide, insisted on working with one member each day on a personal basis. Activities that seem simple, such as obtaining suitable equipment, correctly working with tools, emptying the trash bin as it fills with leaves and returning gear to its proper storage location at the end of the day, all of which are presently carried out independently and without difficulty, were not obvious to the group’s members at the beginning of the project.
Working in the Gardens as part of a team of workers, in the uniform of Ramat Hanadiv and being paid for it at the end of the month has turned the idea of “integration in to the community” in a reality. Hugo Jan Trago, manager of the “Ramat Hanadiv Gardens”, who initiated the project, prefers to regard it as a measure that will enable these workers to become professionals, within the limits of their capabilities and disabilities, in the area of gardening, and will promote them towards integration with different frameworks in the community, such as: nurseries, gardening departments of local councils in the region and others. In his view, the integration of people with special needs with the community is not only important to those people, but to the entire society
During the second part of the work day, the members of the group work in the therapeutic garden, in a plot allotted for that purpose. Here – adjacent to the area shared by all (“the group garden”) – each member has his or her own small garden, in which gardening activities are conducted individually (“the individual garden”).
The most important learning and experiential processes take place at the individual garden. Group members experience the process of plant growth from sowing to withering and get a sense of the changing of seasons “in the flesh”. They learn to cultivate and care for their plants, and to enjoy their fruit. Here, these people who live most of their lives in an institution sharing a room with other tenants, are allowed to experience privacy in a corner, in which they are free to do as they desire, always maintaining respect for others’ privacy.
The group garden is especially surprising with regard to the creativity it represents. Different elements, which combine materials from the rich natural environment of Ramat Hanadiv, accompanied by original ideas, create a charming and pleasant spot. This is also where the “end of work day” ceremony is held – a gathering of the group’s members and drinking of tea made of herbs picked at the spice garden.
From time to time, to break with the routine, the group embarks on activities outside the garden: a walk through Ramat Hanadiv, a picnic in nature, preparation of herbal tea at a nearby spring, a trip to the coast, a day tour throughout the country. In addition, out of the intention to increase involvement with society, cooperative activities are conducted with different parties: joint work in a community garden, preparation of a garden at the Ekstein House employment centre, erection of a garden at the elementary school together with the students, and others.
In recent years, volunteers and interns have joined the group, some of which are students of horticultural therapy at the Seminar Ha’Kibbutzim teachers’ college working on their practical project submission, and some of which are people with an affinity for gardening, interested in becoming acquainted with this therapy field and in gaining practical experience with it.
Different groups visit the therapeutic garden from time to time, as part of the aspiration to allow more people to come in direct, active, rehabilitative and developmental contact with the garden and with its natural and human environment.
During the course of a practical-creative gardening workshop, visitors are exposed to the enabling and gratifying therapeutic aspect this unique field has to offer.
Moreover, educational-professional tours, workshops and training courses for therapists and operators utilising gardening are conducted in cooperation with various parties.
The horticultural therapy project at Ramat Hanadiv is considered a success: the group has acquired gardening proficiency and, with regard to output and work quality, has met and even exceeded expectations. The different conditions that supported this must be considered:
- A systemic cooperation between the management of the Ramat Hanadiv Gardens and the Ekstein House.
- Close tracking and guidance during the work by a professional horticultural therapy team.
- A supportive attitude from the Gardens’ management and work teams.
- Adaptation of the activities and the tasks to the capabilities of the group’s members, from both quality and quantity perspectives.
- A combination of the right balance between work in the gardens and enjoyable activity both in and outside the therapeutic garden. Had the structure been solely work-oriented – motivation, productivity and work efficiency would have been adversely affected.
It is also important to consider the difficulties involved in working with this group:
- Teaching and training: great effort must be invested over a prolonged period of time in acquiring gardening proficiencies, methods for working with tools and work habits. After having studied for a long time (at least one year) – group members develop growing independence at work. Sometimes, attempts are made to involve patients in new work, at a new location. If similar guidance conditions are not provided there – their integration at the new location will not succeed.
- Behavioural problems, which may manifest themselves in various ways: aggressiveness, flight, interference with others, yelling, beating one’s self in outbreaks of anger, detachment and unresponsiveness. Therefore, progressing to professional gardening guidance also requires a therapeutic orientation.
- Different cognitive and physiological limitations that must be taken into consideration when choosing activities and assigning different tasks.
- Changes in the patients’ medication dosage, which may bring about disruptions in their functioning.