Small Space Gardening for Health and Wellness

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Summer is here and it's time to get back outside! However, full scale gardening is typically not an activity that caregivers have time or energy to pull off. That's why small space, or container gardening is the way to go. On a porch, in a window sill or in a sunny room you can grow fresh food and provide physical and mental benefits to seniors; particularly those with memory issues.  Numerous studies indicate that gardening aids in a range of stressful health situations, including reduction of physical pain, recovery from surgery or other medical procedures and helping seniors cope with physically challenging circumstances while learning to live with chronic conditions. Growing food also has the added advantage of eating the "fruits" of your labor.

Maybe you have a few pots sitting unused in your garage that you can pull out, dust off and get planting!  One of the benefits to using a container garden is that you can keep your garden small.  Nothing turns a novice gardener off quicker than facing down an over planted, too large garden that has been neglected for even a week. The weeding alone can be enough to call it quits. But when you use containers, your plants are accessible, easily weeded, and easier to manage.

To get started with a container garden there are a few things to keep in mind:

    1. Get the right sized container for the plant you want to grow. Choosing a pot that is the right size for your plants will help ensure container gardening success. A pot that is too small means your plants will not produce as much. And, if the pot is too large, you’ll spend more money on potting soil than is necessary. A 24 inch diameter pot is perfect for ONE cucumber plant while an 18 inch diameter pot can be used to plant successive salad greens. If smaller is better,  try a few 14 inch pots with one or two herbs. Plants with shallow roots like lettuces, spinach and herbs can be planted in wide, shallow pots, while plants with deeper root systems like tomatoes need to be in deeper pots.
    2. Select plants that you really want to use. Foods that are typically eaten in the home make great selections for a container garden. At harvest time you can pull fresh food from the plant and incorporate it right into your meal For example, if hot peppers suit you, pick up a few varieties to grow and then plan meals around them. Many herbs have medicinal properties that can soothe ailments or improve chronic conditions. Rosemary is known to improve memory in Alzheimer patients. If your loved one has memory issues incorporating more rosemary in the diet won’t hurt, and could possibly help! Likewise, if no one in the house eats eggplant, leave it off the list. If no one is excited about eating it, chances are no one will want to care for it.
    3. Know and select the right growing medium, fertilizer and water requirements. Plants in containers require the right materials to thrive. Select a quality potting soil with nutrients that feed the plant. There are several on the market to choose from. In late summer, the big box stores often have open bags that they offer at a discounted price; sometimes up to 50% off! Be sure to never use garden soil in a container. Garden soil is meant for in ground gardening only. Feed your plants with either a compost or a good quality fertilizer to ensure proper growth, fruiting and overall health of the plant. Plants in containers dry out much quicker than in ground plants so be sure to water briefly a few times a week. Stick your finger in the soil down to the knuckle and check for dampness, if it’s dry, give your plants a drink. Water in the morning or evening and be careful to water the soil only, don’t water plants overhead as the leaves can develop a mildew from standing water.

Gardening has been shown to provide positive benefits to dementia patients and the elderly. Improvements such as better sleep patterns, well-being and functioning are widely recognized in a number of studies on horticulture therapy. For caregivers who want to keep their loved ones active and in the home setting as long as they can, a container garden is a best bet. Small and manageable, a good source of healthy, fresh food, and the additional benefits of engaging loved ones in a long term activity are all great reasons to start one today!

Crystal Taylor of Garden Education Services LLC has been an avid gardener for 20 years. As a Master Urban Farmer, Crystal teaches people about planting food in and around their homes. For more information about small gardening projects contact Crystal at www.gardeneducationservices.com.

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