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Growth potential

woman in garden


25 May 2023

Dr Kate Neale and Southern Cross University's Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP) and the Faculty of Health


Growth potential

Dr Kate Neale is busy in the office at the bottom of her garden when an intruder arrives and comic havoc quickly ensues. As one of the family chickens jumps from desk to chair to shelf to cabinet, sending bits and pieces in all directions, Kate tries to restore calm.

Of course, gardening in its very essence is transformational – seed to flower and fruit; veggie patch to plate; brown earth to stunning displays of colour and beauty. But as Kate knows, it brings other transformations too, particularly for people given accessibility to gardening and who, in that process, also blossom.

Sometimes they blossom for unexpected reasons.

Lessons from the sound garden

"Listen to this,” says the young man, who takes a yellow-green leaf of mat rush between his fingers and squeezes down its length. The sound it makes is an elongated whistle. Next, he plucks and bites a small cucumber, smiling in approval at the crunch. Kate shares in his delight.

“I was going to get rid of all the mat rush when we revamped this garden,” she says. “Until he showed me how the garden whistles and crunches and makes so many other sounds. Sound is his keystone in life, and I hadn't known that. But you can always learn, right?

We have long understood the therapeutic value of gardening through planting, growing, admiring, harvesting and eating. Now I also appreciate the value of the sound of gardens."

This garden enjoys pride of place for the residents at a Supported Independent Living Site (SIL) in the NSW Northern Rivers. Operated by disability services provider Aruma, it is one of three SILs in the region to have benefited from a Therapeutic Horticulture research program to create accessible and working kitchen gardens for people living with varying degrees of disability.

The program was conducted by Southern Cross University's Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP), within the Faculty of Health, where Kate is a researcher in childhood and disability studies. Her findings have provided significant academic value via evidence-based outcomes reflecting the therapeutic and communal benefits of horticulture for people in assisted living. For Kate, the benefits are also deeply personal.

"Look at this garden now," she says. "When we started, it had seen next to no maintenance. In just six weeks, working in harmony with the residents, we were able to turn it into something special. They now grow capsicums, cucumbers, tomatoes, lavender, beetroot, strawberries, herbs, edible flowers, lettuce and corn.

"This is their work and everything in the garden has a reason for being. Along with the tangible things it grows and provides, personal connections are also cultivated, blossoming into a real sense of pride, purpose and belonging.">

The same has occurred at other SIL sites, including one garden managed by women with complex support needs, and another tended by a group of women in their fifties who quickly revealed a previously untapped natural flair for horticulture."

Meanwhile, the connection between Southern Cross University and Aruma has continued in other ways. In November 2021, Kate and Aruma's Human Rights Advisor – Ms Elyce Shearer – presented together at the Australasian Society for Disability Conference and then co-produced the final report, Growing Together Through Gardening. The report affirmed the benefits of horticulture for people with disability in SIL accommodation, among them improved resident wellbeing, improved NDIS outcomes, and sense of pride and belonging.

"Elyce is a woman with lived experience of living with a disability," says Kate. "We highlighted the importance of making gardening knowledge accessible. This is often overlooked given a prevailing focus on simply making the physical act of gardening accessible. By making knowledge accessible too, we empower people living with disability to have agency and be able to either garden autonomously or take the lead on ideas in the garden."

Kate and Elyce have also created the Tips and Ideas for Gardeningbooklet that gives readers simple ideas on what to garden, where to garden, tending a garden and remaining safe while doing so. The booklet plants the seed of communality by discussing how Therapeutic Horticulture can strengthen relationships with people and the broader community.

Planting seeds

Southern Cross University is providing leadership in this endeavour. At the CCYP, there is an unequivocal emphasis on research ethics and privileging the voices of those who often go unheard. Says Kate: “Hearing their voices and learning from their lived experience is critical in determining the projects we take on."

Equally critical is CCYP's engagement with industry and practitioners in ensuring research and work are relevant and impactful, a goal that carries through into Kate's role as Vice President of Therapeutic Horticulture Australia. Southern Cross University is a foundational sponsor.

"So much that the University does fits neatly with the principles of Therapeutic Horticulture," says Kate. "Our work takes a sociological approach by considering not just the individual benefits of Therapeutic Horticulture, but also the role it has in fostering belonging and inclusion at a social or community level."

It is therefore unsurprising that Kate should develop her own sense of belonging as she continues to drive research and projects for some of the more vulnerable members of society.

"Once a project is up and running, I like to sit back and observe the way it develops and the impact it has on individuals and relationships," she says. "Of course, sometimes people need help and that is when I can step in. But when they do not need me at all, that is when data becomes so rich and when real transformation occurs.

"That is the reward for me, in seeing people succeed, in helping them to discover and hone new skills and spend more fulfilling time enjoying a community and social activity and atmosphere.

"Out in the garden, anxieties are reduced and bad days are easier to bear. It is cool and calming. A nice place to be."

Here in Kate's own garden, the point is proved. Cool and calm prevail.

Back in the office, however, the chicken is another matter.