The enabling garden
Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t get to your garden, that you were unable to see the flowers, smell the sweet scent of lavender in the air or put your hands into the cool earth. As gardeners we can readily imagine how devastating that would be. Our gardens are a refuge, a place to relieve our stress, to feel alive, get in touch with nature and in tune with the world around us.
Now imagine a garden where someone in a wheelchair is able to plant and weed to their hearts content; a garden where women who have suffered from physical violence can see not only the beauty around them but also in themselves; a garden where children with disabilities can see, touch, taste and learn about the natural world; a garden, where everyone is welcome.
Executive director, Douglas Markoff wanted to create such a garden to enable people, whatever their disability, to find happiness, health and wellbeing in, and he went for it. "I encouraged the City of Mississauga to support the idea and they not only generously provided the space, but offered their help and assistance in many other ways. Through a very successful fund-raising campaign we were able to move forward and create the Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden. It is a very different garden. There are no others like it located within a public park, and no other that offer the constant programming that we do,” Douglas says.
The Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden was constructed within the MacEwan Terrace Garden on Riverwood’s 60-hectare (150-acre) property of urban wilderness along the Credit River. Here, in central Mississauga, history, forests, wetlands and wildlife abound. The Riverwood Conservancy, a charity that provides programs to the community in environmental education, gardening and natural areas stewardship provided an ideal fit for the new garden project. MacEwan Terrace Garden, a public garden filled walkways and paths surrounded by mature trees and a rich collection of plants, is a wonderful place for mobile clients to continuing exploring nature. Landplan
Collaborative Ltd, the lead consultant for the design of MacEwan Terrace Garden, donated their time and expertise to help design the enabling garden’s space.
What is an enabling garden?
“The garden has been designed for people with a wide range of needs,” states Jane New, the Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden coordinator. “It is a hands-on teaching garden that has been made fully accessible for individuals with disabilities.” The garden provides a safe and supportive environment where participants can take part in activities such as seed starting, flower planting, general garden care, harvesting and safe tool use as they navigate their own pathway to recovery and renewal.
Jane has been responsible for the plant design of the garden beds, their plant selection and for the development of educational programs for their clients long before the garden opened to the public. The programs she has developed can be adapted for persons of all abilities including those with: autism, visual and hearing impairments, cognitive, physical and emotional challenges, bereavement, addiction and dementia, not to mention children of all ages and abilities.
How it’s done
“Plants are selected based on touch, sight, smell and sound in order to make the garden accessible for all people with disabilities. For example, colour choice is very important for those with vision loss. White, yellow and orange are best for creating boundaries as they are easily seen by those with low vision. Purples, blues and greens are harder to differentiate and are therefore used on trellises where boundaries are clear,” Jane explains.
She incorporates both perennials and annuals in the garden, but admits that despite their cost, they use a lot of annuals. “Annuals are good for learning and we really work them hard,” she says. “Planting is great for motor dexterity, hand-eye coordination and physical involvement in the garden, so it is important to have flowers for our clients to plant.” When Jane says they work them hard, they do. Plants will be planted by one group, dug up and planted again by another so that everyone can take part in this intimate act with the garden. Jane admits that even weeds have been replanted, only to be ripped out again, for clients to practice working the soil.
Annuals also play another important role. Unlike perennials, they provide a consistent, brilliant splash of colour all season. This is important because some clients only come once, or suffer from dementia and don’t remember prior visits; it is necessary for the garden to be visually impactful whenever they come.
Bringing nature to the people
For clients unable to embark on a peaceful stroll on the public garden trails, Jane has brought the surrounding forest to them. Dwarf larch or tamarack, ginkgo, cedar and Scott’s pine have been planted for everyone to enjoy. They provide tactile, visual and olfactory experiences.
Even large boulders, rocks and fossils have been brought up to the garden. “If you’re in a wheelchair, it’s rare to be up close to rocks. But rocks are important on so many
levels, they are grounding and spiritual,” says Jane.
“Many people ask me why I did not stick to native plantings and I use the metaphor of multiculturalism. We live in a multi-cultural community, so on a plant level we can be intercultural too. It is interesting to see how native and nonnative species work together. Plants are a great metaphor for life,” Jane explains.
To listen to Douglas, Jane and others involved in this project speak about it, is moving. You can’t help but get swept up in the passion they feel and their pride at just being able to be a part of it.
They should be proud, this isn’t just a garden, it’s a game changer for people.
When asked what her proudest moment has been, Jane tells us, “There are so many proud moments in our garden that stand out for me. One, I think is the fact that we are part of a large public garden, the optics of that are very important.”
She then goes on to explain how one day a woman in the park complained to her about all of the concrete. Jane explained that the woman was lucky, that she could walk and that all of this concrete allowed others who weren’t as mobile to come here as well. The woman’s response was that she just wished “they” were somewhere else.
“That’s why The Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden is here. It doesn’t matter what your challenges are, we are here, we can support you. These individuals have been marginalized in society and we are here to give them a voice. The garden is their voice, they belong here. The garden teaches them so much in such a gentle way. That’s what I am proud of,” she says passionately.
The number of people taking part in the Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden’s programing has doubled since they opened in 2013. They continue to expand their programming and address an ever wider range of special needs. New programming addresses youth at risk, developed in partnership with a traditional Aboriginal Elder, women who have suffered from violence and teachings by the Elder on Aboriginal medicine. They continue to build relationships with the surrounding hospitals. For more information about The Riverwood Conservancy Enabling Garden or to make a donation contact Jane New at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, to get an enabling garden in every city...
The garden’s design, special tools and sensory-stimulating plant composition provide the benefits of therapeutic horticulture.
Therapeutic horticulture is the use of plants and gardening related activities to enhance an individual’s mental, physical and emotional well-being.
Shallow pans allow participants using wheelchairs, walkers or scooters access to the bed without having to twist their body.
Even simple items like rocks add to the tactile experience of the garden.
For clients unable to stroll the forest, miniatures of the trees have been brought to them.