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Caring to Cultivate on the Long Row of Life : An Eclectic Look at Gardens, Gardening and the Aging Process

Posted Nov 05 2010 7:29am

The Garden of Earthly Delights
by Hieronymus Bosch , circa 1503-04

Dr. Scott Wright, Director and Associate Professor at the University of Utah has generously agreed that I can share his outstanding article, " Caring to Cultivate on the Long Row of Life, An Eclectic Look at Gardens, Gardening and the Aging Process " with fellow gardeners and bloggers.  There are 3 parts to the article and I am breaking it up into sections.  To learn more about the author visit him at his blog The Rogue Scholarship on Aging.

Gardening is one of the most popular home-based leisure activities in the U.S. and represents a significant and salient activity in the lives of older adults (Ashton-Shaeffer & Constant, 2005; Bhatti, 2006). Francese (2002) noted in his article, with the provocative title of “Horticulture is hot,” that the National Gardening Association claimed that 80% of US households tended to plants, which represented an increase of 65% from the year 1996. Francese (2002) also reported that the 55 to 64 year old age group was the cohort that spent the most on horticultural products and services and that the aging baby-boomers would continue to expand the spending and interest in gardening activities into the near future.

But why? Is there a connection between a greater interest in gardening and along with increasing aging? Is there some sort of human developmental imperative at work here? Or is this a cohort specific phenomenon? Or perhaps the functional allure of gardens and gardening in the later years is the result of multiple factors: historical, aesthetic, generational, psychological, and physiological? It appears that the jury is still out in relation to the scientific answers to these questions. Furthermore, there is little empirical evidence to point to any direct measurable relationship to a natural affinity between aging and gardening as a desired activity and preferred use of time in later life. In addition, we have to acknowledge that a good number of people in our hypertechnical world may find the notion of gardening as antiquated as the telegraph or little more than a self-sufficiency habit held over from the Great Depression era. It may even bring to mind the stereotypic and passive activities of “the golden years” associated with shuffleboard or a slow game of checkers in the city park. Or in other words, about as interesting and engaging a topic on aging as watching paint dry, and certainly not a topic to compete with the latest research on telomere degradation or a policy report centered on the Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug Plan.

And yet, there is much more to the nexus of gardening and aging than what one might assume. In fact, the roots go deep and there are fruitful outcomes upon closer examination of the intersect between the two.

Gardening as an activity to improve the quality of life for older adults has generated a substantial number of publications that address the role of indoor gardening and horticultural therapy within institutional populations (Brown, Allen, Dwozan, Mercer & Warren, 2004; Collins & O’Callaghan, 2007; Grant & Wineman, 2007; Kreidler, 2002; Reid, 2006; Wells, 1997 1) which is also reflected in the paradigmatic shift of “The Eden Alternative” 2 in managing long-term care facilities (Thomas & Johansson, 2003; Weinstein, 1998). There are also significant publications on outdoor gardening activities for people who live in geriatric care settings (Ottosson & Grahn, 2005) and specifically for persons with dementia (Rodiek & Schwarz, 2008). We also know that gardening can serve as a “bridge-building” activity for enhancing intergenerational cooperation in community settings (Goff, 2004; McKee, 1995; Larson & Hockenberry, 2006; Predny & Relf, 2004), and that it can represent a form of legacy in older adults (Moller, 2005), and serve as a mechanism to engage in “successful aging” (Oh, 2005).

There are research findings to indicate gardening as an activity to enhance the physical and emotional well-being for older adults who reside in home and community-based dwellings. For example, Infantino (2001) found that the gardening experience had sustained older women in their cognitive and spiritual development. Heliker, Chadwick, and O’Connell (2000) found that horticultural projects (consisting of 12 weeks of interactive gardening classes) were instrumental in increasing a sense of psychological well-being in racial and culturally diverse groups. They also found that gardening helped to instill of deeper sense of legacy and spirituality and a deeper relationship with the earth and nature in the older participants. Similarly, Miiligan, Gatrell, and Bingley (2004) found that older adults benefited from gardening in communal garden allotments as it helped to overcome social isolation and contributed to the development of social networks. Although lawn care has been the most prevalent form of gardening nationwide, this dimension has been going through its own transformation and redefinition as many more people are looking to redefine the “lawn” into a more environmental friendly 3 and regionally appropriate recreational and social site for families, including the expansion of gardens (Grampp, 2008). Brown & Jameton (2000) have indicated that there are numerous benefits for the increase and support of gardening: food security and nutritional health (home grown produce has the potential to offset the cost of purchasing food; positive effects on physical health (as exercise), and overall community improvement (to enhance social capital; it can serve as a community organizing tool to combat poverty and provide a collective response to blighted city neighborhoods) and as a way of raising consciousness about environmental stewardship.

Brown and Jameton (2000) also suggest various community-based policy recommendations to encourage urban garden activities because, “Urban gardening raises our public awareness of the need to safeguard our environment, and especially our urban soils, from future pollution, erosion, and neglect” (p. 33) {see also Guerilla Gardening -}

More specifically to older adults, Ashton and Schaeffer (2005) discovered many motivational factors for gardening in their investigation. For example, they found significant differences among older adults by marital status, education and health status in terms of motivational categories. The two most important categories were: physical fitness and creativity.

Perhaps it is best to summarize the findings of the importance of gardening in the lives of older adults by highlighting the work of Bhatti (2006) who found that the presence of and the interaction with gardens can have a major significance in the (re)creation of “home” in later life. In addition to the benefits of physical activity, there is the added dimension of what the garden symbolizes psychologically as a meaningful reason for existence, or as one older adult expressed it, “when I’m in the garden I can create my own paradise.”

Ah yes, paradise. But not quite like the ones we associate with Dante’s work, or mythology, or in the biblical accounts in Genesis. As Harrison astutely points out,

“A garden that comes into being through one’s own labor and tending efforts is very different from the fantastical gardens where things preexist spontaneously, offering themselves gratuitously for enjoyment…For unlike early paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence.” (pp. 6-7)

In the remainder of this paper, I will examine two domains of the nexus between gardening and the aging process. One domain will be to discover and highlight the many interesting nodes of intersection among the arts and humanities in relation to the themes of gardens, aging artists, writers and filmmakers. The second domain will address two issues: a) gardening as a mechanism to engage the cultivation of care in the social milieu of the aging individual, and b) as a way to enhance the notion of stewardship in supporting environmental health in the context of home and community based dwellings. But before we examine the interplay of those issues in greater detail, I will briefly review the history and purpose of gardens, and then examine the role of gardening and the aging process by highlighting the cross-fertilization of these issues in the arts and humanities.

How Does Your Garden Grow? Definitions, History, and Purposes

For many people, the word “garden” can evoke varied emotions and leaps of cognitive associations. It can also signify many things that have little to do with cultivating vegetables and flowers. Some may immediately think of an entertainment/ sports venue (e.g., Madison Square Garden); a biblical setting (e.g., The Garden of Eden) or some historical wonder of the world (e.g., The Hanging Gardens of Babylon); or pieces of literature such as The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt or The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III; or the film The Constant Gardener directed by Fernando Meirelles (based on the novel by John le Carre); or exotic paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch or The Enchanted Garden by J.W. Waterhouse (see Albers, 1991) or exotic settings such as found in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Colonna, 1999).

For others, there may be an immediate leap to the Butchart Gardens in Greater Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada or the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden or Zen rock garden of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan (see Harte, 1999). Some may think of the Garden State (New Jersey) or if that is too far north then others may prefer Winter Garden, Florida. In the academic domain, gardens have served as a sociological focal point for assessing collectivist and bureaucratic cultures in conflict in the context of the “urban gardening movement” (Jamison, 1985). In the historical domain, there were the “Victory Gardens” in the 1940’s and with contemporary television, perhaps the PBS series, “The Victory Garden.” But for many people, a garden can simply be a plot of soil as close as your backyard and as modest as raised box with a few marigolds and tomato plants. As Ross (1998; 1999) has noted, trying to pinpoint an exact definition (in the Wittgensteinian sense) of gardens is daunting,

"Consider a French formal garden, an English landscape garden, an Islamic water garden, a Japanese Zen garden, a backyard vegetable plot, suburban perennial bed. Gardens can be large or small, enclosed or unbounded, natural or geometric, dense or sparse, rolling or flat. They can contain tress and flowers, streams and fountains, mounds and grottoes, walls and ha-has, paths and trenches, temples and follies. Given this range it doesn’t seems promising to define “garden” in terms of content or features.” (p. 5)

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this paper, one can be advanced for conceptual purposes. According to Pizzoni (1999), gardens can be thought of as a place set aside for multiple uses such associated with horticulture and the cultivation of plans for food and medicinal herbs but it can also be seen as an expression of ornamental, religious and even political purposes. Gardens can even be considered an art form and “representative of civilizations and their cultures, and in particular of every age’s experience and depiction of nature” (p. 9). Although Pizzoli (1999) primarily examines gardens in the West from about the fourteenth century to the present day, Turner (2005) has explored the philosophy and design of gardens from 2000 BC to 2000AD and reviewed the uses of gardens in Egyptian, Greek and Roman culture, West Asian and Islamic cultures, through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic, and into the more modern era of abstract and post-abstract designs (see also Adams, 1991; Comito, 1978).

Conan and Whangheng (2008) have focused their masterpiece book on the role of gardens in city life and have examined the role of gardens in developing social and cultural life and facilitating economic well-being in various cities from an international perspective. In their edited book, several authors have pointed out that gardens have served both for pleasure and politics over the centuries and have served as repositories of cultural memories. One of the more fascinating chapters in the book presented information on the ecological and socioeconomic dimensions of homegardens in Kerala, India. And if the reader wanted to take a visual tour of over 500 gardens across the planet, there is the exquisite publication by Phaidon Press (2000), simply called The Garden Book, which provides a comprehensive and illustrated survey arranged in A-Z order complete with accompanying commentary “to place both garden and maker in their stylistic and historical context” (see also Taylor, 2006). If one wanted to review the intimate history of the social-psychological and utilitarian transformation of “home grounds” for middle-class families, the publication by Grampp (2008) is indispensable (see also Constantine, 1981). And finally in another edited book by Punch (1992), there is the presentation of an extensive profile of gardening as it has been involved in the general cultural life of the United States from its very beginnings with the first European settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts (approximately 1584 and onward).

The last chapter by Michael Pollan (1992) (“The Garden’s Prospects in America”) 4 is illuminating in its analysis of the development of gardens in America. Pollan (1992) argued that although both the front lawn and the wilderness park are brilliant in their own regard, they actually “represent the antitheses of gardens, and their hold on our imaginations and yards has done much to retard the development of the American garden” (p. 261). In fact, Pollan suggests that our motives for gardens have usually been more utilitarian than aesthetic or sensual, and he provocatively takes on the transcendentalists (as Thoreau struggled with the activity of gardening in relation to the “moral” dilemma of altering the natural landscape) as harboring a negative view of the function of gardens. While Pollan believes that defending wilderness and the right to have a front lawn are essentially a part of our cultural pedigree, he also believes that the America is shifting toward the middle landscape of the garden, which makes both environmental and economic sense. Pollan wrote,

“Gardening tutors us in nature’s ways, fostering an ethic of give and take with respect to the land. Gardens instruct us in the particularities of place. Gardens also teach the necessary if still rather un-American lesson that nature and culture can be compromised, that we might be able to find some middle ground between the wilderness and the lawn…we need the garden – and the garden’s ethic – too much today for it not to flourish.” (p. 265)

Next :  Gardening, Aging and Classical Literature.
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