The benefits of gardening for people with disabilities in adapting, control of their environment and being close to nature are many

July 1984 – Speech at the SA Gardening Society

Biodynamic farming potential

Last Saturday night, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Four Corners program explored the ideas and practical experience of a Ukrainian-born Victorian farmer, Alex Podolinski, who works with the power of the Cosmos. According to his theories, based on Rudolph Steiner’s teaching that working with the forces operating in the Cosmos focused in the correct manner, extraordinary and to date non-scientifically explainable results occur. He calls this ‘bio-dynamic gardening’.

In 1953, Alex founded the Biodynamic Agricultural Association of Australia (BDAAA) and his conferences started to inspire hundreds of farmers to take on a path outlined by observation, responsibility and rejection of chemicals. This man and his followers use tiny amounts of especially prepared organic material which is applied to pasture at the correct time and in the correct manner, thereby transforming and rejuvenating the soil.

If his claim that 500 cow horns filled with dung can transform the land, it is no surprise that contact with the soil can benefit people with disabilities. We also know that talents, unless used or developed, wither away like unwatered plants. Could it also be that as modern life removes us from natural understanding and involvement with the earth and its mysteries, we lose our nurturing instincts? This would seem true as, throughout the world, we lay waste to the forests and indiscriminately exploit the land and seas. It is hard to imagine a garden lover valuing chip board above the rain forest from which it came.

Benefits of permaculture

Modern man has of course organised himself and the means of production away from individual self- sufficiency regarding food production. People like Bill Mollison of Tasmania with his concepts of permaculture are reteaching people in Third World situations how to use the potential of group organisation and understandings of natural interactions to achieve a common purpose.

Bill Mollison will be speaking on his concepts of permaculture and self-help at the First Asia/Pacific Regional Convention of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) being held in Adelaide from the 4th to 8th November, 1984. His session may be of particular interest to members of this association.

Potential employment outside for intellectually disabled workers

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that gardening is not just an aesthetic past time. Several sheltered workshops in South Australia now rely heavily upon income generated from plant propagation. Recently, I saw that traditional sheltered workshop associations in Queensland and northern N.S.W. had moved to successfully developing rural enterprises to farm avocados and Macadamia nuts using the labour of people with intellectual disabilities.

The intellectually disabled workers I talked with left me in no doubt as to where they would rather work and live. In fact, many had come from rural situations and felt much more comfortable working outside, away from the city lifestyles and pressures they would have otherwise had to experience.

Benefits that gardening can bring

What are some of the benefits gardening can bring? It saddens me that we now rely on academic studies to be aware of the therapeutic values gained from working with the soil and tending plants. We used to be instinctively familiar with the release of tension and feelings of accomplishment the clearing of a yard full of weeds could bring.

The designing and laying out of gardens exercise not only our creative talents, but also develops our ability to forward plan and to think ahead as to how various future growth patterns will affect the final outcome of our planning.

Learning to adapt is essential for people with disabilities and gardening can be an important teacher in this area. I have already mentioned some of the other benefits such as relaxation, release of tension, feelings of accomplishment, self-worth as well as a knowledge of life itself, its values and cycles.

Gardening makes people care givers, not just care receivers

Fortunately I inherited a love of growing things from my Gran. She was one of that wonderful generation of people who went about their neighborhoods exchanging cuttings and friendships, along with many jars of garden produce.

I also have two spinster aunts, now in their near nineties, who have lovingly maintained their grandmother’s garden in its original state. Their Norwood property is a time capsule of Victorian charm and grace. Sadly, this piece of personal devotion will no doubt fall to the developers and the insatiable demands of progress.

Disabled people are predominately receivers of care. Gardening however reverses this role for them by giving them the carers, nurturers, and to a degree a controller’s role. Henderson discovered in his Poverty Enquiry that disabled people are amongst the poorest of the poor. This means that cost is an important criteria in developing any interests. Most hobbies can be expensive.

Although gardening is no exception, disabled people can follow my Gran’s lead and exchange or, I believe the polite term is “borrow” cuttings, seeds etc. The exception of course is parsley where it is essential to steal a plant at midnight.

Your Society could provide a gardening outreach service to those people with disabilities who live at home or within the community. This is in fact the largest group of people who could benefit from the stimulation. Information about individual adaption can be especially important. If their environment and tools are adapted so they can participate in gardening, people with disabilities will be more fulfilled and more independent.

Hydroponics for income and healthy food

Since moving to the beachfront some seven years ago, my own efforts at gardening have been limited to indoor plants and directing my dutiful wife to an endless battle with salt, wind and sand. If I had more leisure time available, I’m sure I would be involved in the exciting area of hydroponics.

I believe that home gardening is a largely unexplored source of income for many people with disabilities living in the community or at home.

The exciting developments in hydroponics bring at least pension supplementation into the realms of possibility through vegetable and in particular health foods production. Even aiming at a self sufficiency level with good healthy food is a financial saving. Perhaps an even more important aspect is the natural developing interest in healthy food which gardening encourages. Too many disabled people and particularly those in institutions are grossly overweight. What is more worrying perhaps is that few people seem to be concerned at this fact.

Gardening doesn’t need to be ‘therapy’

Finally I would like to offer some advice for your consideration. Other areas have limited their potential value by overemphasising the medical therapeutic aspects. Many disabled and elderly people have lost their natural interest in listening to music by being required to attend music therapy sessions.

The concept of therapy is interwoven with power structures inherent in the medical model which invariably places the disabled person in a passive accepting role. I am sure none of you are operating with that intention.

May I wish you all well and hope that your work and efforts will continue to grow and thrive.