University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

gmg logo Anytime News Articleline

HEALING GARDENS

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

Whether tending to a houseplant, growing some flowers, or turning an outdoor garden space into a serene and relaxing retreat, plants have the power to heal our body and our soul.  The National Garden Bureau has provided some examples on how we might use plants for healing, as well as their past and present use.  This is not a new practice, going back millennia.   

Chinese were using medicinal herbs for healing as early as 3000 BCE (before the Christian era).  Later, the Greeks built a temple for their god of healing, Aesclepius, surrounded by healing gardens.  In America, the Quakers were among the first to grow plants for relaxation, restoration of the soul, and to stimulate creativity.  They established one of the first therapeutic programs in this country in 1879 at the Philadelphia Friends Hospital.  Stimulating this was the observation by a physician that psychiatric patients tending fields and flower gardens at the hospital were calmer.  The gardens had a "curative" effect on them.
   
After a few recent decades of relying primarily on drugs, medical institutions have begun incorporating more views of green spaces, flowerbeds, and garden views around their facilities.  Some rehabilitative institutions utilize gardens and horticulture therapy programs as part of their patient treatment.
   
An excellent example of a healing garden I had the fortune to tour is the Rosecrance Healing Garden at their Rockford, Illinois campus for adolescents, which has a several acre world-class Japanese garden.  The ordered and relaxing principles of the garden are incorporated into life analogies, exercise, group therapy, and a place for contemplation.  Its value is seen in quotes of its clients.   "Whenever I feel weak in recovery, I look out at the garden and I realize that I couldn't enjoy all the beauty of the world under the influence.  It reminds me of how much I want recovery."    Another quote from a client could apply to most any peaceful garden setting.  "The Serenity Garden helps me relax when under stress because it helps me reflect on the simple things in life."
   
Healing gardens can be found at many other institutions, such as in Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Portland.  Doctors at the Jupiter Medical Center in Florida found that cardiology patients in rehab, who had a view of their healing garden from their rooms, took less pain medication and had shorter hospitals stays than those without such a view.
   
Whether a serious illness such as a stroke or cancer, gardens can be an important part of healing by providing hope and inspiration.  Hope in Bloom (hopeinbloom.org) is a non-profit organization in Massachusetts that installs free gardens at the homes of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, as well as for other cancer patients.  Each garden is specifically designed for the home and lifestyle of the recipient.  It gives them a tranquil oasis from the world of doctors, hospitals, sickness and despair. 
   
Gardens and gardening activity can improve mental outlook and our emotional mood by reducing stress, anxiety and depression.  Studies have shown that gardening, even garden visits, can lower blood pressure and cholesterol which in turn lowers the risk of heart disease.  Researchers at the Cleveland Botanical Garden found that blood pressure of many visitors dropped the longer they stayed in the gardens. 
   
Just as the healing process takes time, so does the design and development of a healing garden.  Here are some ideas to get your started.
--Healing gardens can, and should, fulfill individual needs and desires, but they always provide interaction with nature.  This natural appeal to our senses may take the form of the touch of a velvety leaf, the color of a flower, the scent of herbs, the sounds of water or leaves in the wind, or the taste of vegetables.
--Consider water for relaxation, or the attraction of wildlife (such as birds and butterflies).
--A healing garden can begin with, or be as simple as, a container of colorful flowers, a potted flowering plant, an outdoors container in summer with a vegetable such as lettuce or dwarf tomato, or a pot of herbs on a sunny windowsill.  Simple gardens with just a few different plants and hardscape elements, repeated or used in mass, often are more calming than complex gardens.
--Healing can be more than just observing, incorporating the experience of the gardening process.  Maintenance such as watering and repotting, to watching the growth process from seed to flowering plant, provide a sense of accomplishment and well-being.
--Whether indoors or out, make sure when choosing plants to find ones suited for their new environment to ensure success.  Light need is perhaps the key factor indoors and out.
--Outdoors, include a gentle path, a place to sit, and shrubs or fencing to provide enclosure.  A special plant, sculpture, water fountain, even interesting rocks can provide a focal point for meditation and relaxation.
   
More resources, and healing gardens to visit, can be found at the Therapeutic Landscapes Database (www.healinglandscapes.org).

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles