The Spiritual Nature of Garden
Practice – Wellbeing for Seniors
Joanne Adams, PhD Candidate,
La Trobe Rural School of Health
30 September, 2014
Outline of Presentation
Research Question
My Approach to Research
Literature / Existing Research
Preliminary Findings
Next Steps
La Trobe University
Research Question
Can garden practice be recognised as a form of spiritual expression?
How might this assist in meeting the spiritual needs of older people and enhance
health and wellbeing in the final stages of life?
La Trobe University
My Approach to Research – A phenomenological perspective
Knowing yourself, aligning methodology / method with research question –
Acknowledging my own spiritual search
Investing myself in the research – context and practice
Lived experience of a gardener/pastoral carer – in-depth interviews
Acknowledging assumptions – keeping a research journal/reflective diary
Reaching a shared understanding – use of poetry
Communicating my research
La Trobe University
Literature / Existing Research
Spirituality and Spiritual Expression
 Changing definition and general understanding –
Tacey, D. (2003, 2006), Swinton, J. (2001, 2006)
 Reduced attendance within formalised religion
 Generational divide
 Impact
 Need to recognise spiritual expression in other forms – everyday practice
La Trobe University
Holloway, J. (2003)
Literature / Existing Research
Ageing Theory and Perspectives
 Developmental theory – Gero-transcendence
Erickson, E., Tornstam, L. (2005)
 Cultural view of ageing
 Reflection – memory, activity (physical and mental), everyday practice
 Home-making (Bhatti, M., 2006, 2009)
 Spiritual understanding / need – impact of change
 Aged care sector growth and limitations
La Trobe University
Literature / Existing Research
The Benefits of Contact with Nature
 Range of academic disciplines
Eco-psychology, Biophilia, Human Geography, Sociology,
 Positive relationship – multi-dimensional (physical, mental, emotional,
 Evidence based practice – research methodology / method
 Requires an element of faith
La Trobe University
Literature / Existing Research
The Role of Activity
 Mental and physical participation – ways of knowing
Gendlin, E. (1997), Todres, L (2007)
 Memory and everyday practice (past, present, future)
 Learning to notice, having time and space
 Sensory responsiveness
 Popular leisure activity - gardening
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – Spirituality and Spiritual expression
Many participants had a very structured basis to their faith:
“The church was our everything when I was young, we went there for
everything, now the kids don’t even go at all” (Edith)
There was an acknowledgement of a change in spiritual expression:
“You don’t have to go to church to be spiritual and one of the aspects of
people’s lives that has changed so much – they are not worried so much
about going to church and they might still have their spiritual attitudes
towards things but they don’t express it like they used to” (Rex)
The essence of spiritual expression is perhaps unrecognised:
“They may feel it and sense it and see the perpetuation of life – living dying,
replanting, regrowth – all of those – they don’t necessarily connect it to faith”
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – History of backyard gardening
Contact with nature in the garden formed a foundational memory for many
“My father was a great gardener too, he grew most of the things we ate. He
had five or six fruit trees and chickens” (Beryl)
For some this included being taught how to create a garden:
“My mother was a good gardener and she’d give me a packet of seeds and I
had a little piece of the garden, my own little area, not very big, but that was
my garden and I was taught how to dig it and how to plant those seeds and
you know I still use those principles now” (May)
It also established a living connection with the past:
“That geranium used to be Grandma’s, so every time I’ve moved I’ve taken it
with me – its a pink, but it’s not one I’ve seen anywhere else so I’ve got to
keep one in a pot coming on as well so I don’t lose it” (Prue)
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – Symbolism and Reflection
Learning to notice and reflect was facilitated by the garden:
“As you get older I think you appreciate the little things – the little things
make life worth while” (Rex)
A reverence for creation was identified:
“If you open a seed pod ..., there’s something very difficult to define as to the
magic of it ... and the way the seeds have been created. It doesn’t look like
anything at all. I guess we as humans, we don’t look like anything either
when we start off” (Prue)
One participant was able to relate a sense of connection:
“Well I think that somehow in some mysterious way we are all interconnected
and that we come from the same great love and we manifest in different
ways – maybe into a tree or a flower” (Nancy)
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – Accepting Change
Finding new interests after retirement was very positive:
“Only because of my job, I didn’t get too interested in gardening until I retired
... and we bought a new place and I started growing my own vegetables and
just fell in love with doing that” (Rex).
Maintaining independence and keeping active was an important aspect of
“I’m not a loner, but I don’t crave company and that’s another thing too with
aged people – a person with a garden doesn’t need people, they’ve got
something to do, you’re not dependent on other people for an interest. I
think it’s very important for people as they get older, I mean even if they
haven’t had a garden when they were younger, its marvellous how they can
learn to do it, there’s such a variety of things” (Mavis).
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – Complete Absorption of Attention
Noticing, watching and observing beauty provided clear benefits:
“... you’re watching every week, there’s something new going on – something
to take your attention – you just can’t be bored. I just feel very smug sitting
here, I think how lucky I am, there’s no boredom at all, its just lovely. It must
be spiritual I think” (Mavis)
“I just love being able to lose myself, it doesn't matter what worries you’ve
got you can come out and time just seems to stop still” (Prue)
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings – Coping with Ageing, Disability, Loss
With advancing age a role within the family often changed:
“I find when you get a bit older you become a bit redundant in lots of ways as
far as the family is concerned, because they’ve all got their own lives to live
and you’re able to do things for yourself (in the garden) so that you’re more
enriched and not bored” (Marg).
The garden provided a means to cope with physical and emotional upset:
“Sometimes if you’re not feeling 100%, mentally or physically, something
might have upset you, you just go out there and just look around the garden
and think – Oh they all look happy and cheerful – why aren’t I?” (Mary)
Understanding and accepting loss was experienced by many gardeners:
“That’s one thing I say to my children – gardening is a bit like life – you do
lose some and you have to accept the losses” (Nancy)
La Trobe University
Preliminary Findings - Wellbeing
Maintaining a sense of wellbeing for many was related to an experience of
mental health:
“I feel that part of me would die if I couldn’t garden – its a very powerful
feeling” (Prue)
“If you feel a bit down, if you go out into the garden it often helps, you think of
other things and it gives you something else to think about I suppose” (Edith)
“The best benefit I get is that I relax, because I can sit there and nobody’s
hassling me ... It’s so peaceful and I think that’s basically what I get from the
garden is peace” (May)
La Trobe University
Next Steps
Further interviews with Pastoral Carers
Analysis of Findings
Journal publication
Writing ...
La Trobe University
Thank you
Thank you to CAPS for the opportunity to present my research
Thanks also to my Supervisors:
Dr Jan Pascal
Dr Virginia Dickson-Swift
Prof. David Tacey

Mrs Joanne Adams – The Spiritual Nature of