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A path to wellbeing: the growing world of gardening therapy


Tamani Nair
21 December 2018

Therapeutic horticulture is an emerging field with proven benefits to the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of people within a wide range of contexts.

Southern Cross University, through its research and industry partnership with vegetable growing kit makers Vegepod©, is developing programs that maximise these therapeutic benefits and make gardening accessible to more people. 

Research fellow at the University’s Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP) Dr Kate Neale said the programs are evidence-based, person-focused and wellbeing-centred.

“Much research in this space has so far looked at the benefits from a psychological or biomedical perspective,” Dr Neale said.

“Our research is taking a sociological approach to understanding the therapeutic benefits of gardening. The research aims to understand how wellbeing is derived through social interactions and a feeling of belonging.

“I’m developing five therapeutic gardening programs tailored for different contexts in aged care, schools, disability services, social housing and early learning,” Dr Neale said.

“My interests lie in exploring how independent and community gardening enables individuals to develop a sense of self-esteem and belonging. 

“Building on my work as a researcher and working with children and people with cognitive disability, my focus has been on developing gardening programs for people who feel socially isolated, experience food insecurity or may not otherwise have the opportunity to spend time in green spaces, but who may benefit from it. 

“Making gardening accessible in the physical sense is important and products like Vegepod are great for that. As well as the physical accessibility, we also need to make gardening knowledge accessible.

“Within school education programs, what we’ve learnt so far is that kids really learn through doing and gardening is a really wonderful way of getting their hands in the soil.

“They are thinking about mathematics, science, they are understanding nature better but just by doing that they are also developing and nurturing a sense of wellbeing.”

Southern Cross' partnership with Vegepod© was born from a need for research and data in the company’s community outreach program.

Vegepod© Chief Executive Officer Simon Holloway said the ultimate goal of the research programs in development is to ensure those who may not normally have access to growing their own food, get growing.

 “Sure we are good at our product and we are good at our service but we don’t really have the research side around it,” Mr Holloway said.

“We don’t have evidence and we don’t really know what’s going on sometimes between the users of our products, our services and the impact they are having on communities using them.

“We found that having the University and Dr Neale tying those together has created that credibility and added value to what we do,” he said.

The power of social media to connect and network

With close to 32,000 followers and counting, Dr Neale has harnessed the power of social media to highlight her backyard garden, celebrating the successes and inadvertently inspiring some of her followers to pursue gardening.

“Instagram started because none of my friends cared about the tomatoes that I grew, so I started a new account, @mylittlesheshed.

“I got to know other gardeners and I got to know industry people and it blossomed from there," she said.

Southern Cross University a great place to do research

Young and relatively small, Southern Cross University has a proven track record in world class research through engagement with partners and stakeholders across a wide range of settings.

“It is small enough that you can take an idea to somebody and they are able to action it,” Dr Neale said.

“Southern Cross University is a great place to work because essentially it is the people there, it is the ability that I have had to be mentored by some really wonderful academics and researchers in the field.”

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