Healing Gardens

We are testing to what extent gardening can help (former) cancer patients meeting the norms of physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake, and to what extent gardening in a group can function as a form of social support.

Research in the United States shows that gardening helps (former) cancer patients to increase physical exercise and access to fruit and vegetables, and take up vitamin D. As part of AMS Institute’s research programme ‘The Feeding City’ at the Flevo Campus, Parkhuys Almere, Flevoziekenhuis, Donkergroen, and we as Wageningen University and Research aim to find out if we can achieve the same effects in the Netherlands, and also to study whether gardening in a group leads to social peer support.

The first step in this research was a pilot project called ‘Healing Gardens’ in which (former) cancer patients gardened with guidance of volunteers. The results of the pilot will be used as input for a larger research program.

Aim and objectives

Our objective is to set up a large and structured research program to examine the physical and mental effects gardening can have on (former) cancer patients. There is convincing evidence that a healthy diet and regular physical activity, especially when started during the medical treatment, have a positive effect on recovery. Therefore, therapeutic treatments for cancer patients are often focused on the recommendation to eat healthily and exercise frequently. However, this is not attractive for the majority of recovering cancer patients: less than 25% of patients manage to consume a sufficient quantity of vegetables and comply with the physical activity guidelines.

Possibly, gardening is an activity that better suits patients’ needs, capabilities and interests. Gardening is a physical activity that exposes people to fruit and vegetables in a natural way, and working in the outdoors provides the necessary vitamin D. Moreover, as gardening is an activity that can easily be performed in groups, it may be a way to experience social peer support.

The Pilot

A first step in this research program was a pilot project that we have developed and implemented. The aim of this pilot was to test the study design and measurements used, and to identify the needs of potential participants, such as whether people enjoy maintaining a communal plot, or rather prefer an individual space, and how much focus there should be on mental support for the patients. 

The pilot started this spring on the grounds of Parkhuys, where we placed (raised) containers in which participants grew fruits and vegetables. The pilot was treated as one of the regular activities offered by Parkhuys, so that professional support and guidance of Parkhuys’ volunteers was available. The pilot ended in October 2017. We are currently analysing the results.  

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