Adaptive Gardens: Access for All

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Photo by Lacey Kinder

You may have already heard that hospitals and health care facilities around the world are becoming attuned to the way time spent outdoors can benefit their patients. Proximity to nature can promote elevated feelings of calm and reduce blood pressure, as well as stimulate beneficial brain activity. While healing gardens have gone a long way in relieving the stress brought on by exhausting clinical treatments, some gardeners have made it their goal to bring patients even closer to nature. They’re using adaptive gardening techniques to create spaces where patients not only walk through nature, but engage their senses by interacting with the plants.

For a century, the Capper Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, has sought innovative ways to improve the lives of the more than 2,000 people with disabilities served annually. The nonprofit, which is dedicated to providing therapy services and home- and community-based support, was born in 1920 due to the determination of former Kansas governor, U.S. senator, and philanthropist Arthur Capper. A devoted advocate of children with disabilities, Capper bequeathed assets so the foundation could purchase land and develop a new campus — the same location at which it operates today.

Photo by Lacey Kinder

The staff, supporters, and volunteers who ensure Capper’s legacy have grown the Capper Foundation to serve both adults and children. When they saw the healing that outdoor activity and gardening could bring, they knew it was a service that should be brought to the campus.

Adaptive Designs

What’s an adaptive garden? It’s one that modifies traditional gardening methods to accommodate the physical limitations of its visitors. For some people, these problems include pain, sensory loss, or limited joint movement. For the Capper Foundation, this also meant designing an open space large enough to be enjoyed by many clients at once, choosing plants pleasing to the senses, and ensuring raised beds and planters were built to specific heights to make them wheelchair accessible on all sides.

Photo by Lacey Kinder

One Capper Foundation garden was funded in 2014 through a grant from the Darden Foundation’s program to teach adults with disabilities to grow their own food. Additional beds were added to the Darden Garden in 2018 thanks to funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation. In the same year, a local landscaping company donated additional flower beds and raised beds to the Foundation’s courtyard — a gardening space that’s now worked in, walked through, and enjoyed by anyone who works, receives services, or visits there.

The courtyard gardens, especially, have helped bring the healing power of plants to clients. The 8,000-square-foot space holds more than a dozen different planting areas bursting with herbs and flowers. Capper Foundation’s Marketing Specialist Matt Kelly says, “The courtyard garden gives the people we serve a chance to observe plants up close, reach out and touch the plants, and sometimes dig into soil as they help with planting.” Therapists use the plants to interact with their clients, and during the summer, cookouts are hosted under a canopy to bring even more people outdoors.

Photo by Nikki Martinek

Carolyn Litwin, the Master Gardener in charge when the courtyard gardens were first installed, is particularly proud of a raised bed built specifically for wheelchairs to be rolled beneath. Four clients can sit around it, two on each side, as if “you’re sitting at a desk,” she says. Litwin explains that this setup means a person in a wheelchair “can actually roll right under the bed so their arms are lying right on top of the soil to feel and to plant.”

Another element Litwin finds particularly helpful for Capper Foundation clients is a tipi-shaped structure in an in-ground bed in the courtyard. It’s built from PVC pipes for vining plants to climb, “and sometimes, someone who’s able to get out of a wheelchair can kind of hold on to that tipi and work on it,” she says. This provides extra interaction with plants that would otherwise stay out of reach.


Photo by Lacey Kinder

On the other hand, the Darden vegetable garden on the property is designed to stock the Capper Foundation food pantry and bring more health and happiness to the people being served, many of whom live below the poverty level. Adult Day Services Manager Chris Ostrander says, thanks to the gardens, “Many of the folks we serve are able to take home fresh vegetables that they can’t normally afford from the grocery store, and it helps them to live healthier lives.” The Capper Foundation recently received another grant to fund a paved path that’ll replace the dirt paths. The new path will make the 20 various raised beds, benches, and picturesque landscaping even more accessible to all clients, not only those who help tend the plants.

Reveling in New Experiences

It’s hard not to note the difference these gardens have made in the lives of the Capper Foundation clients. On top of giving their adults a chance to gain valuable new skills they can take with them into their respective communities, Ostrander says the process teaches them “the importance of teamwork, how to identify plants, how to plant them, when to plant them, which plants you can’t mix together, and other general vocational skills.” A team of adults choose to work in the Darden Garden throughout the season, led by Ostrander and their “honorary Master Gardener” John (who receives services through the Capper Foundation), but any adult interested in helping out can assist in watering and maintaining the plants.


Photo by Lacey Kinder

John, in particular, has been profoundly affected by access to these gardens. He currently helps plan and purchase supplies each growing season. “His role has really given him a chance to take ownership. For example, we started out with vegetables, but John loves roses and flowers. He suggested that we plant flowers and rose bushes in our gardens, so that people can enjoy them in bloom,” Ostrander says.

Apart from the herbs and any plants chosen for their specific value, such as those requested by John, Litwin stresses that almost everything the Master Gardeners suggest for growing is an annual. “That’s purposeful,” she says. “It allows [the clients] to replant.” This simple specification means the adaptive gardens need yearly work. Every May, the Capper Foundation clients plant a variety of grasses, vegetables, and scented plants, and every fall everything has to be cut down or removed. The clients get to observe and interact with the plants’ life cycles over and over again.


Photo by Lacey Kinder

Litwin says the Master Gardeners usually don’t insist on repeat-planting particular annuals in the gardens every year, however, because no single plant is necessarily more valuable than another when it comes to engaging the senses. “If you talk with the Master Gardeners about how they choose what flowers to plant, they’d say all flowers and plants have sensory properties,” Kelly explains. And that’s exactly how Litwin puts it: “Every garden is sensory in that it has texture, color, and shapes.” For a truly effective adaptive garden, the clients’ physical ability to interact closely with any plant needs to be the real emphasis.

Still, as noted by Litwin and Ostrander, variety can matter when your goal is to bring unique sights, textures, and scents to those working with the plants so they continue to revel in new experiences. In 2019, the courtyard gardens at the Capper Foundation housed jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), sedum (Sedum spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), cotton (Gossypium spp.), fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum), and herbs.

Connecting with Nature, and Each Other

Litwin’s favorite aspect of the Capper Foundation gardens is the way the Master Gardeners work one-on-one with the clients: “On knees beside an eager (or not-so-eager) gardener, showing how to tap a plantlet out of a pot, how to position a trowel to dig an effective hole, how to mound the soil around the plant and carefully water it, has provided a relationship as well as a gardening experience.” Those relationships, to her, are what ultimately make these adaptive gardens a success; the clients know and trust the people teaching them, and when that’s the case, everyone gets more out of the work they’re doing.


Photo by Lacey Kinder

And, of course, one of the simplest and most profound effects of gardens in general is the sense of well-being they promote. “The staff and people we serve often use the garden as a place for peace and meditation,” Ostrander says. “It’s a joy to sit out there and enjoy all the work that our folks have done.” Because of the success they’ve experienced, the staff at the Capper Foundation encourages other organizations to consider establishing their own adaptive gardens. Vice President of Pediatric Services Sandy Crawford suggests reaching out to grant organizations, local gardening groups, Master Gardeners, and horticultural therapists for more information and possible funding.


Photo by Lacey Kinder

Adaptive gardens give those with physical limitations the chance to reconnect with nature in a way they may have thought was lost. Nothing could be more healing to the spirit than that.

Healing in Hospital Gardens

Gardens meant to soothe and help heal people have existed for hundreds of years, and today, more and more hospitals are rediscovering the positive effects that a garden can have on recovering patients. These green spaces are transforming health care facilities, helping to reduce stress in patients, and even providing fresh produce for those in the community. You can read more online in Mother Earth Gardener’s sister publication Mother Earth Living in “Healing in Hospital Gardens”.

Haley Casey is an editor for Mother Earth Gardener. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found gathering new ideas for green living.

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