Growing New Memories After Dementia – Starting a Garden with Your Loved One


Farmer Roy Wilburn, Horticulture Manager

Just because a loved one has dementia doesn’t mean they are finished making wonderful new memories. Their life will change, but there is plenty that they can still do and accomplish. One great activity that you and your loved one can do together is create a garden. Building a garden is a perfect way to spend time outdoors, connect with the earth, and share a fun and challenging goal with your loved one. At Sunshine Care, one of our most popular activities is our garden club. Here’s how you and your loved one can start your very first garden together this year.

Start Small

Creating a garden is about connection and having fun, so there’s no need to turn your entire backyard into a working farm overnight. Instead, start small. Determine your Plant Hardiness Zone and pick a few easy-to-grow vegetables, flowers, herbs, and/or fruits to start this year. As you learn from this year’s experience, you can increase the size of your garden next year and experiment with additional plants.

How to Include Your Loved One: Make up a list of easy-to-grow plants in your area and have your loved one pick two to four to plant this year.

Pick Your Spot

Next, you’ll need to pick the ideal spot for your garden. If you have a yard, try to pick an area that gets good drainage and that receives a good balance of shade and sun throughout the day. Too much shade can be a plant killer, but you also don’t want scorched plants, especially if you live in San Diego like us!

You might also want to consider building or purchasing planter boxes. Planter boxes help keep weeds away from your vulnerable new plants. They also make watering easier, which is important here in San Diego where we all make an effort to be “water wise.”

Even if you don’t have a back yard, you can still start a container garden or even try a hydroponic garden. Make sure you read up about the unique challenges of these gardening methods.

How to Include Your Loved One: Your loved one can help you make planters by accompanying you to the store to pick up materials. He or she can sand the wood or even paint the boxes to make them more beautiful.

Use the Best Soil

It’s important to give your plants the best food possible. The dirt in your yard might not be able to provide your plants with all the nourishment they need. Even if your plants survive, they may not yield much if the soil is weak. Give your plants a strong start by purchasing high quality garden soil or compost to mix with your existing dirt. A good rule of thumb is to use 50% yard dirt with 50% garden soil or compost.

While you’re at the home and garden store, grab some mulch to layer on top of your garden. This will further protect your seedlings from weeds and pests.

How to Include Your Loved One: Many of our residents love to get their hands dirty. Let your loved one help you mix the garden soil with your yard soil and fill up your planter boxes or containers.

Purchase Starter Plants

Since this is your first garden, it’s a better idea to purchase starter plants rather than seeds. Starter plants are easier to keep alive and cultivate than seeds. If these starters are a success, you may want to consider trying seeds next year.

Read the planting, care, and watering instructions for your seedlings carefully, as they vary from plant to plant. Make sure you bury them deeply enough so that their roots can take hold, but don’t bury them so deep that their leaves won’t be able to get sun.

How to Include Your Loved One: Show your loved one how to make a shallow hole in the garden, place the seedling, cover it up, and pack it down.

Have Fun

No one is born with a green thumb. We all learn by doing, which often includes making mistakes. Don’t be surprised if not all of your plants thrive or even if a majority of them struggle. The key is to have fun with the process and to learn. If a plant struggles or dies, try to figure out what when wrong. Did you overwater it? Did it get too little sun?

Next year (or next season) try something a little different. Don’t be afraid to do a little research. Undoubtedly, someone has faced your same dilemma, and hobby gardeners love sharing their wisdom and advice.

Each year, you’ll get a little better at gardening!

How to Include Your Loved One: Monitor the garden with your loved one. This may include printing out a typical growing schedule for each type of plant in the garden so you can see if your plants are on track. Go out to weed and water the garden together.

Gardening at Sunshine Care

We can’t help but be proud of our gardens at Sunshine Care. Each year, our gardens produce over 20,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Many of our residents actively volunteer to care for our garden throughout the year as part of our garden club. Under the supervision of our head gardener, they plant seeds, pull weeds, and pick ripe fruits and veggies when they are ready.

Most of this produce is used in the meals we make for our residents, so they literally get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We are also proud to give away excess food to the Backyard Produce Project.

Want to see our gardens up close and learn how we’ve incorporated gardening into our residential activity programming? If you live in San Diego County, schedule a facility tour today.


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