More hospital gardens needed to help patients, Carleton researchers say

A group of Carleton University students hope their research into the physical, mental and social benefits of therapeutic gardens can help them take root at hospitals and other health-care institutions.

Database aims to make case for more hospitals to get digging

Irena Knezevic, an assistant professor at Carleton, said hospitals need tools to measure how effective gardens on their land can be. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Can a green thumb help heal the body and the mind? A group of Carleton University students hope their research into the physical, mental and social benefits of therapeutic gardens can help them take root at hospitals and other health-care institutions.

Five Carleton Master's students looked at three hospitals that have therapeutic gardens, including Glengarry Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, Ont., as well as the existing literature on their benefits, in hopes of providing ways to best measure their effect.

"You would think it must be hard to measure someone's level of stress but we found that there's some creative ways to do so ... [like] you can measure patient's blood pressure level before or after being in the garden," said Marie-Claire Flores-Pajot, one of the students who worked on the study.

Marie-Claire Flores-Pajot and her fellow students discovered many institutions were not using quantitative tools to track the benefits of the gardens. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)
Physical benefits can be measured, too — the strength of the hand during physiotherapy can be tested before and after, for example — as can mental benefits, such as improvements in cognitive states or memory for patients with dementia.

The students hope their database of physical, mental and social well-being measures, as well as ways to track nutrition and the benefits to the institutions themselves, will make it easier for hospitals to see the benefits of growing on-site gardens.

Listen to Ottawa Morning reporter Hallie Cotnam's radio piece on the gardens here.

Hospitals need 'concrete evidence' to justify gardens

"Even though gardens aren't that expensive to maintain and run they still cost money, you still have to pay somebody to do it, to buy supplies; even if you have volunteer support there's still costs associated with it," said study supervisor Irena Knezevic, an assistant professor at Carleton.

"It's not that hospital administrators … don't want to fund them, but they need concrete evidence to justify that," said Knezevic.

The Glengarry Memorial Hospital garden was established as a therapeutic garden five growing seasons ago as part of the stroke rehabilitation department, and now has more than 50 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, which are eaten by patients and staff.

Project manager Louise Quenneville said that for people who had worked the soil in the past, the garden helped connect them to what they used to do before the stroke.

"I see happy faces, for one thing," said Quenneville. "There is always a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and go out there and have an activity in the garden."

The Carleton study was done in conjunction with Project SOIL, or Shared Opportunities on Institutional Land, a group studying the potential of food production at health-care and educational institutions.

The project lead, Phil Mount, said he'd like to see Glengarry's garden grow, and for others to follow suit.

"They are sitting on probably about 15 acres of unused land, and that's not unusual … we found more than 500 [hospitals and long-term-care facilities] that had more than one acre and more than 50 that had more than five acres."

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