Chastain Home Therapy Garden

The therapy garden at the Chastain Home is a great example of adapting gardening to provide access for older and handicapped gardens.  Gardens provide a place of solace in these unsettled times.

Whoever said, “Never underestimate the healing power of a quiet moment in the garden,” knew what she was talking about.  The benefits of gardening – fresh air, exercise and mental stimulation - are well documented.

A new garden area on the lushly landscaped grounds of Halifax’s Chastain Home for Gentle Women is providing daily quiet moments, as well as lots of healthy vegetables and flowers for bedrooms and dining tables.  The Chastain Home Therapy Garden was designed last year by Southside Master Gardener Rita Powell and received approval as a Master Gardener outreach site by Virginia Cooperative Extension and VA Tech.

Rita moved into the Chastain Home in 2018 and right away started engaging the ladies with crafts and art projects.  As a lifelong gardener, she thought about building raised beds near the Home’s back entrance to give the residents a convenient way to walk outside and join in planting.  Raised beds are one way that garden work can be modified to be more accessible as a form of ‘horticulture therapy’.

Gardening as balm for the mind and body was first described in the early 1800’s.  Later, after the end of the World Wars, psychiatrists at veterans’ hospitals tried gardening as treatment for veterans suffering the effects of physical and emotional trauma.  The concept of changing the practice of gardening has steadily gained interest as more and more ways are discovered of extending the joys of gardening to more people.

Regardless of age, activity level, physical or mental ability, gardening methods can be adapted.  The garden itself can be altered by such means as raising the level of the soil so bending and reaching are minimized, installing walkways that accommodate canes, walkers or wheelchairs, and limiting the overall size so that maintenance is manageable or putting plants in containers or straw bales.  Benches and chairs can provide frequent rest breaks.

The gardener herself can make changes in her approach to gardening.  Things like remembering to stretch and exercise before going outside, breaking down heavy items like mulch or soil into smaller batches, and changing positions frequently to avoid becoming stiff are ways to continue gardening safely.  Making sure to drink plenty of fluids and avoiding the heat of the day are practical considerations for everyone who gardens, but especially important for the elderly or mobility-impaired.  Perhaps the most difficult but most important change to make is to limit one’s expectations:  a smaller garden that is well maintained and productive is more soothing and satisfying than a big plot that’s hard to keep up with.

One of the easiest ways to adapt gardening is by modifying garden tools and how they are used.  Smaller tools easily reach weeds in containers or straw bales.  Rake and shovel handles can be made more comfortable and ergonomic by adding D-grips or non-slip wraps.  Joints can be protected by using kneepads or easy-rise kneelers and wheeled scooters make it easier to move between beds.  Lighter weight hoses and extender rods allow the gardener to avoid dragging heavy hoses. A drip irrigation system, as has been installed at Chastain, is another option to ease the task of watering.  

Many of the ladies at Chastain remember growing up on farms and having their own gardens.  They were excited to plant flower seeds in pots and nurture these in their rooms until they could be transplanted outdoors into the raised beds.  The first year they planted daisies and these plants have come up again alongside this summer’s marigolds, sunflowers and pansies. This spring, corn, tomatoes, green beans, radishes and okra went into a 50’ x 2’ strip along the fence. “We had a shucking party for the first harvest of 32 ears of corn,” Rita says.  “We spread newspapers on the floor of the craft room and everyone helped. We really enjoyed the corn at dinner.  The next week we sat around and pulled off strings on the beans – I had never done that before.”  The cook likes incorporating the plentiful tomatoes into salads at lunch. She also has canned and frozen the veggies to use this winter. “One tomato was a whopper, over two pounds!”

Perhaps the best part of the Chastain Therapy Garden has been having it there as an outlet during the five long months of quarantine.  During the time that the ladies couldn’t leave the property and visitation was canceled, the garden provided breathing room and new things to notice.  At dinner, the talk always drifts to what is going on in the garden.  Everyone watched for the groundhog that showed up to sample some of the vegetables.

The ladies are already planning next year’s garden.  “Everyone will pick a favorite vegetable.  Lowe’s has been very generous in providing seeds to get things started.  We will be putting in a fall garden of greens and harvest some seeds from summer plants to save for next season.  We also want to start a compost pile of kitchen scraps, weeds and grass clippings.”

Rita continues, “I couldn’t have done this project without my dedicated Master Gardener Therapy Garden Committee volunteers who worked so hard building the raised beds and planting bulbs.  I feel close to God in a garden and want to share my love of working in the soil with everyone.  Gardening is taking care of God’s earth.”

During this pandemic, the Chastain Home for Gentlewomen has restrictions on visitation.  However, you are welcome to do a drive by.  Just follow the circular drive and the therapy garden is around the back.  Please stay in your car as you view the garden.  The Chastain Home is located at 370 Mountain Road in the Town of Halifax.  While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org.  If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call.  The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number.  Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and plan to use ornamental grasses in your landscape.