Horticulture Therapy for Physical & Intellectual Disability Services

Eala 2017

In response to a request from County Carlow Development Partnership(CCDP), who were working with the Delta Centre, a social enterprise committed to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, a proposal was submitted by Dee Sewell. The idea was to create a raised vegetable bed garden for residents and friends of one of the residential homes and work with participants to help them grow their own food.

Social, Community & Therapeutic Horticulture

Several benefits were identified at the beginning which included:

  •       Improved mental health.
  •       Connecting with others.
  •       Physical Exercise.
  •       Biophilic effect of being in nature.
  •       Sense of achievement.
  •       Acquiring new skills to help inspire confidence and self-esteem.
Social, Community & Therapeutic Horticulture Case Study

Funding & Collaboration

Initial funding was provided for 28 hours to design, create and then to work weekly with Delta Centre participants on Monday mornings between April and July 2018. Carlow Men’s Sheds were invited to build the raised vegetable beds for the outreach garden, which they did and subsequently installed.

CCDP provided the funding for the education hours, as well as the wood necessary to build for five large raised beds and two small ones. Delta Centre covered the material costs of filling the beds and all other associated materials throughout the project, which included tools, equipment, plants and seeds.

The Goals & People

At the beginning of the project, Dee sat with Alison Whelan, Delta Centre Tutor and the new Delta Centre, eight-member gardening group to discuss what they would like to grow. They created two measurable goals based on these discussions:

  1. To grow fruit and vegetables that could be taken to assisted living classes, or to homeplaces, and cooked by participants.
  2. To provide a therapeutic focus for building cognitive skills along with an opportunity to socialise together in an outdoor working environment.
Social, community & therapeutic horticulture

The Garden

The garden was a blank canvas. Located in a rural setting on the outskirts of Carlow town centre, surrounded by mature hedging at the back of the bungalow. It was agreed that half of the lawned area would form the new 209m² growing area, giving space for the raised beds as well as a seating area.

Activities, Measuring Goals and Outcomes

The garden group followed a basic plan each week, focussed around a garden diary. They began by looking at the changes, what had grown and what hadn’t, the weather and the temperature as well as who joined the group for the week. They then worked at different garden related activities. At the end of the session there was a group evaluation of the tasks carried out, as well as what the team enjoyed the most and jobs for the following week.

Teamwork, learning new things, getting outside, planting the seeds and vegetables, constructing supports, watering, being in a group with friends, seeing how everything was growing, being outdoors and having fun

were all regularly identified as the things people enjoyed the most about the garden, which all correlated to goal number two.

Social, Community & Therapeutic Horticulture

Goal number one was more difficult to obtain within the short timescale as plant growth was slower due to the severe drought in 2018. However, the group compensated by foraging in the garden hedgerow. They picked elderflowers and took them back to Delta Centre for their assisted living class, where they made seasonal cordial. They also harvested some of the faster growing vegetables on the last day such as lettuce and early carrot thinnings.

After Dee’s funding had finished, the group still visited the garden and continued to harvest the vegetables that were plentiful, fulfilling the vision for the first goal.

Greenside Up


In May 2019, the programme resumed, again with support and funding from CCDP and the Delta Centre. To allow for an extended growing period, the weekly garden sessions were cut to 1½ hours a week. During this growing season, Dee and Alison have been working on a different evaluation technique. They are trialling a photography project where participants photograph whatever interests them, helping to gauge some of the favoured aspects within the garden. This method was used by Joe Sempik, Jo Aldridge and Saul Becker in the Health, well-being and social inclusion: Therapeutic Horticulture in the UK publication in 2005.


This is a relatively new project only in its second year with still much to do. However, all of the benefits identified at the beginning of 2018 were achieved from the work in the garden:

  • Improved mental health: people always went home more cheerful that when they’d arrived.
  • Connecting with others: the group mixed with each other in a social but working environment.
  • Physical Exercise: weeding, watering, planting and sowing all helped in this respect.
  • Acquiring new skills to help inspire confidence and self-esteem: almost everything we did was new to the group and for those who’d done it before, doing it again helped to reinforce the learning.
  • Biophilic effect of being in nature: every week we noticed the weather, the wildlife and the growing and changing seasons and felt more connected to nature.
  • Sense of achievement: the important certificate ceremony at the end reflected this on the last day, as well as taking home food grown by everyone there.

Two learners involved had not fully engaged in or completed a programme until this one began and we found that it provided the motivation to commit to completing a task/programme.

Two learners lived where the project was being held which gave them more of a connection to their home and added to their sense of belonging.

If you are considering running a horticulture therapy programme for your group, it’s worth noting the time commitment. Gardens, plants and nature are year round activities and this should be considered when allocating or applying for funding. Gardens can take time to develop if all the benefits are to be reaped.

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