Your Health

Grow your way to better health and well-being

Photo of a man in a wheelchair digging in a raised garden box.
Photo of Eleanor Stelmack.
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, May 4, 2018

The importance of gardening in an individual’s life became evident to me 19 years ago when I first started working as an occupational therapist in the River East community.

I remember visiting a woman who was in a wheelchair. She moved into an apartment because the demands of her home had become too much for her. The thing she missed most was gardening. She had a window full of plants in her living room, and when she talked about her plants and what they “did” for her, she would lean forward and put her hands into the dirt and start sifting through it.

Those plants were her reason for getting up in the morning. She found that talking to the plants boosted her spirits, and gave her a sense of purpose. They also made her apartment more attractive and brought nature right into her home. Fortunately, her family was on board with her love of gardening and had made her a revolving plant holder so she could have three levels of plants that could be brought down to her sitting level where she was able to tend to and care for them. She had the biggest smile on her face when she was “digging in the dirt.”

Like that woman, you too can experience the joys of growing things. And it doesn’t matter what your age or ability is.

The first thing to note is the physical nature of gardening. Digging holes and trenches and carting around soil and plants can be strength-building and aerobic in nature. Gardening between 30 and 45 minutes a day can burn 150 to 300 calories. This isn't just standing there watering the flowers, but weeding, digging, hoeing, raking and planting.

For gardeners who have challenges or limitations, there are a number of adaptive and ergonomic equipment options available. Many of these options have become mainstream, as they are easier on the body. One of the challenges with gardening is to know when to stop, so you don’t cause injury or aggravate an existing health condition. The best aid might be a timer that reminds you to stretch or change the type of activity you’re doing.

The main point here is that gardening can easily be adapted to fit your physical abilities or exercise goals. One website that I found very helpful for individuals with disabilities is

The psychological benefits of gardening are also well-documented in rehabilitation articles dating back to the First World War. Veterans coming back with injuries were often encouraged to become involved in horticultural therapy, as it provided a structured activity that involved cognitive skills as well as a sense of accomplishment.

Gardening can also be a great stress reliever. We tend to think of interactions as being with other people, but interaction with nature can be a form of social engagement. The air, the plants, the sunshine, the fresh air, the smells and textures of the gardening environment all add to our sense of belonging.

Gardening is often an activity that is shared within families. It creates inter-generational bonding. There is a deep sense of pride and purpose in gardening. Who doesn’t want to see peonies in full bloom or check out the vegetable garden and take fresh produce home?

Gardening is not just for those with a back yard.

For example, if you live in an apartment, there are options. Allotments and community gardens exist throughout the city and many of these have raised garden beds. Like the woman I met all those years ago, you can also keep house plants or put planters on your balcony.

One of the best gardening resources locally is an organization called Friends of Gardens Manitoba Inc. They have a list of garden organizations, as well as events related to gardening in Manitoba. You can also drop into a local greenhouse for tips on how to get started.

The May long weekend is the traditional time for gardeners in southern Manitoba to start planting and seeding. But there is plenty to keep a gardener occupied until then. Gardens can be prepped by cleaning up last year’s leaves, turning over the earth and adding compost and manure. You can also look for new seeds, containers and tools.

This spring is a perfect time to see how green your thumb can be. Happy gardening!

Eleanor Stelmack is an Occupational Therapist with the Healthy Aging Resource Team for River East/Transcona with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, May 4, 2018.

Gardening resources:

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