The Garden Path: Green, Growing, and Blooming Project Journal
Assisted Living Facility #1, Sevierville, TN
The Garden Path ~ Green, Growing, and Blooming Project emerged as a tangible remembered connection and, consequently, a pathway to engagement,following my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, a connection enlarging her narrowing view of her world. She had been an inveterate gardener and had lived in tune with the seasons. The everyday visual signs of nature—sunshine, birds, raindrops, butterflies, blooming plants, or leaves falling from trees—all had meaning during her active life. Seasonal activities related to gardening remained benchmarks in her sense of time. Nature remained significant and an ever-present factor as we negotiated her way through the increasingly complicated world into which she was transported due to diminishing capacity. Wonderfully,a sense of community and the important connections commuity offers grew in each of the gardens explored in this journal as volunteers contributed time and plantings, reflective of the participative and inclusive perspectives shared among gardeners.
Journal Entry ~ Foundation for The Garden Path—My Mother’s Innate Awareness of Nature
Journal entry #1 is the story of the garden path at Wellington Place, a for-profit assisted living facility centrally located in Sevierville, Tennessee. My mother became a resident of the facility in mid-November, so our activities were particularly sensitive to seasonal restrictions as well as the complications attendant to introducing plants and planting activities into such a particularized formal setting, i.e, many common areas, concerns for safety and residents’ personal preferences, facility guidelines, etc. My goals were to enhance my mother’s every day life in the facility and to contribute to the overall wellbeing of all the residents of the facility. Two distinct perspectives guided the tasks required to accompish these goals:
- As a daughter and primary caregiver, my objectives were to a) create an atmosphere in her private living area that reflected the environment that my mother had enjoyed in her own home and b) introduce activities into her daily routine in which she could participate, even if minimally.
- As a volunteer gardener for this community, I sought to be inclusive in all planting/gardening activities, involving residents and/or visitors who evidenced interest in our activities.
I began by creating a greenhouse effect in my mother’s apartment, reflective of the overbundance of houseplants “wintered” in her home. The decorating theme in her apartment focused on plants and plant-related items with substantial variations.
- Potted plants were positioned on the window sills and end tables, as well as suspended from wall hooks and door frames.
- Shelves were installed in an extra closet to store planting materials, including potting soil, extra flower pots, a couple of watering cans, plant food, and other gardening paraphernalia.
- A plant stand with ever-changing blooming plants was located in the common area hallway just outside the entry way to her apartment. Each plant was labeled with the local, commonly known name of the plant.
- To complement the plant stand, I installed a story-board on the opposite wall next to the apartment entry-way; the storyboard showcased pictures of the blooming houseplants on the stand with a label naming each plant. The name labels and pictures on the storyboard directly echoed the blooming plants and name cards on the plantstand.
- In spring and throughout the growing season, flowering baskets were displayed on shepherd’s hooks outside both the living room and bedroom windows. In addition, day and nighttime blooming vines were planted outside both windows – with the added bonus of different fragrances produced by each variety.
Many of the activities developed to engage my mother ultimately involved members of the community.
My mother was not a ‘joiner’ and the storyboard and accompanying flowering plants at her entryway served as a ‘meet and greet’ spot for residents, who invariably knocked on her door to engage my mother in casual conversations about the plants.
- Residents began placing potted plants outside their doors with requests that we ‘help’ with caring for the plants. Of course, each request was honored - which led to increased involvement of the residents with other residents interested in the plants, as well as with the plantings themselves.
- A portable greenhouse for starting seeds was installed in the facility’s greenhouse room. Seeds were started in peat pots with my mother and several residents joining in the activities. We monitored the progress of the seeds and shared watering tasks with residents who wanted to participate. Usually, the same three residents would water the plants – often too helpful resulting in overwatering. I made adjustments for any overwatering or gaps in the continuity of watering.
- Seeds planted in peat pots in the sunroom were moved to the courtyard raised bed garden with residents remarking on the changes as the plants grew and vegetables began to take shape. Many discussions took place around the growing vegetables with stories of gardens the residents had tended, as well as memories of their parents’ gardening practices.
- Plantings in the courtyard were positioned to maximize viewing by the residents – from their own room windows, the activity room, library, the greenhouse, and windowed doors leading from the building to the courtyard. Benches were strategically positioned to promote residents’ interactions with the inground plantings. Color and hue, shape, size, blooming cycle, and butterfly/bee attraction guided the planned installations in the courtyard.
- Perennial vines were planted at the base of birdhouse-topped posts within the outside perimeter of the grounds. Each resident room lacking a window with a view of the enclosed courtyard, therefore, had blooming vines on view from their windows.
An unplanned nature event created quite a stir in the Wellington community when I found a wasp nest in a birdhouse in the courtyard. I contacted a professor at our local research university, and after dark one evening, he and two students removed the wasp nest intact. The nest was installed in his lab with viewing windows so students could view the inner workings of the nest. Some of the staff and the more aware residents watched the process from windows in the activity room. Much excitement attended that event!
The following are stories of my mother and some of her neighbor residents, all of whom had been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Their individual experiences suggest and highlight their innate awareness of nature, as well as remembered pleasures associated with gardening tasks.
Planting seeds and removing spent blossoms
My mother held seeds in her hand while I, as her helper, placed the seeds in peat pots which were then placed in a portable greenhouse in the sun room. For many months, she had been unable to distinguish individual shapes in framed wall hangings or in print; however, when her helper inadvertently dropped a seed on the tweed carpet, she quickly pointed out the exact location of the seed by gesturing with her finger. If my response was not immediate, she maintained that posture until I bent down and retrieved the dropped seed. She participated further in our planting activities by holding her hand out to receive spent blossoms removed from pots of petunias and other blooming plants. She would point to spent blossoms remaining on the plant until all were removed.
The sunroom greenhouse
Plants grown in peat pots in the portable greenhouse were relocated to the raised bed garden in the enclosed courtyard. From the beginning, I observed residents and visitors reminiscing about their own experiences in the garden, including planting, growing, and harvesting many, many varieties of crops.
Plant watering – the first EVER involvement in an activity since moving into the facility three years prior
I observed a resident, who just appeared in the sunroom one morning, as he hefted a filled watering can (that he had filled without anyone knowing his intentions), and began watering every single planted peat pot in the portable greenhouse and the potted plants placed around the room. That task completed to his satisfaction, he then moved out the sunroom door into the courtyard and watered all the plantings in the courtyard. From that day forward, he watered the plantings in the sunroom and courtyard every single day (whether they needed it or not). He set his own schedule, worked out the watering routine, and only required (or accepted) assistance filling the watering can and turning the courtyard water spigot on and off. Up to that time, he had consistently refused to participate in any facility activities or celebrations. He had been very angry about moving to the facility from his home. According to staff and my own observations, his participation in the gardening activities and his control of the watering tasks seemed to make a difference in this gentleman’s attitude toward the other residents and the staff.
Watching a parade of chrysanthemums
My niece, her husband, and I brought a ‘trove’ of potted chrysanthemums into the facility in armloads, requiring multiple trips to a designated display area. The activity room opened off the hallway access to the place designated for the chrysanthemums. At the time, residents were seated in the activity room enjoying their regular game of bingo. The activity room gathering included ambulatory and wheelchair-bound residents. Almost thirty beautifully blooming chrysanthemums in glowing fall colors were carried down that hallway. By the third trip down the hallway, an audience of about 25 residents—who had noticed the ‘parade’—had gathered in response to the beauty of the flowers, expressing their appreciation with applause and oohs and aahs. Other residents gathered at the activity room windows for a better view.
“It really worked.”
One resident, who had grown up in a care facility, had never planted seeds, and had never cared for a potted plant, decided to plant seeds in the peat pots so he could watch what might happen in the portable greenhouse. He watered ONLY his peat pots, albeit, on a very regular basis. When the first tendrils of growth appeared, I knocked on his door inviting him to see what he had grown. This fifty-year-old gentleman could not believe his eyes. He kept repeating, “It really worked. It really worked.” He tracked the growth of his plantings throughout the summer, and shared his experience with anyone who stood still long enough to listen.
Remembered farming practices
One resident, who grew up on a farm and regularly fingered any growing plant, picked green tomatoes from the courtyard raised bed garden, carrying them inside to ripen on her windowsill. Often, the tomatoes were also secreted behind other objects as treasures, and only discovered by happenstance.
As staff at the facility observed residents’ responses to activities in the sunroom, greenhouse, and the other planting activities in the courtyard, additional projects were undertaken to increase participation and enjoyment. For instance, relatives of the director built the raised bed on site—much to the enjoyment of the residents and their visitors! The area around the raised bed was prepared to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, insuring the path was smooth and easily navigated by those with physical impairments. Benches were placed strategically around the courtyard, and each resident enjoyed a view of the outdoor environment with blooming plants or a birdbath.
My mother, her companion residents, visitors, and staff all related to the plants in the communal living spaces within the facility itself, as well as the plantings outside in the enclosed courtyard and in the surrounding grounds. Residents and visitors to the facility responded regularly and enthusiastically to these natural elements introduced into the enclosed exterior courtyard and shared common areas in the interior of the building.