Healing gardens have been used around the world for centuries to help people recover from medical and mental health conditions.
Recent research shows us there are significant physical, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits from spending time in these specially designed gardens.
In this post, you’ll learn what healing gardens are, why they’re helpful, and how you can easily build one at home.
What are healing gardens?
Healing gardens, sometimes called therapy gardens, are usually designed to be part of a physical, cognitive, and/or emotional treatment program. They’re usually found in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, or treatment facilities.
Therapeutic gardens are purposefully designed to maximize the interaction between people and plants as part of a medical, healing, or rehabilitation program.
However, more people, especially since Covid restrictions and lock downs began in March 2020, are creating them at home. Modern life has become even more stressful since then.
Practicing self-care every day is key to protecting our physical and emotional health in a stressful world. Whether you use a small corner in your yard, set aside part of your property, or create an indoor garden, creating your own healing garden can help you manage current and future stressors.
Are therapy and healing gardens a new idea?
Healing and therapy gardens have been used for centuries. For example, the ancient Greeks built a temple for Aesclepius, their god of Healing, which included bathing pools and healing gardens.
In Colonial America, the Quakers believed that gardens were special spots for creativity. One of the first gardening treatment programs was started in 1879 at the Philadelphia Friends Hospital.
A doctor started the program after he noticed that psychiatric patients were calmer after working in the hospital’s fields and flower beds.
In the past few decades, the medical community has been using therapy gardens and nature as part of treatment.
Patients with views of nature tend to have fewer postoperative complications and shorter hospital stays. They also need less pain medication.
Family, visitors, and staff also report feeling better when they can use therapy gardens on site. As a result, more therapy gardens and therapeutic gardening programs (i.e., horticultural therapy) have been popping up around the country.
How do healing gardens work and what are their benefits?
Therapy and healing gardens are a separate and dedicated space meant to give people a break from their current situation. Being surrounded by the sights, smells, textures, and sounds of nature helps every system in our bodies.
Research about the health benefits of gardening shows that it helps children, teens, and adults feel physically and emotionally healthier.
Benefits include lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation and levels of stress hormones, better pain management, stronger immune systems, increased physical strength, improved mood, and an increased sense of hope.
What are the types of healing and therapy gardens?
The gardens are usually divided into 2 main categories based on how they’re used.
They are typically used by recreation, physical, and occupational therapists to help a specific group of people.
Digging, pruning, and planting provide exercise, strengthen body parts, and/or meet other physical treatment goals through gardening.
Groups that benefit from gardening therapy (i.e., horticultural therapy) include children with chronic medical needs, veterans, the elderly, and at-risk kids and teens.
They are meant to help people benefit from the physically and mentally calming experience of being surrounded by plants and nature.
Meditation, contemplation, and sensory gardens fall into this category. People who benefit from this type of garden include those struggling with cancer, chronic illness, addiction, trauma, grief, and other mental health issues.
How do you design a healing garden?
Regardless of its purpose, there are some universal design features of healing gardens. These include:
- Accessibility by people of different ages and ability levels.
- Having a defined space set aside to help people focus.
- Minimal or no use of chemicals which could limit interactions with plants.
- Easy to find and use.
- Design features and activities maximize people’s interactions with natural elements.
In addition to these features, each garden is also typically designed to meet the needs of the people who will be using it. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility in how these gardens can be designed and used.
How to create your own healing garden at home.
When planning a therapy or healing garden for your home, here are a few things to consider:
The purpose of the garden:
Consider whether you want it to provide physical exercise, engage all the senses, or be a peaceful relaxation spot.
Then, look for plants, seating, lighting, and water features that would help you achieve that goal. Make sure to combine shrubs, flowers, and herbs with other natural elements such as rocks and wood.
You can also add bird feeders or plants that attract wildlife. This will engage more of your senses and help you enjoy the garden throughout the year.
Think about what you, friends, and family members may need to enjoy the garden for years to come.
This can include making pathways wheelchair or walker friendly, having tools for different age groups and ability levels, building raised garden beds, or even creating vertical gardens instead of ones that are flat across.
Avoid plants that are harmful, especially if children or people with developmental disabilities will be visiting. There’s a higher risk that they could eat something that would hurt them.
These include plants that are poisonous and/or have thorns or sharp edges. Make sure that plants and flowers don’t have anything on them that can cause rashes.
Additionally, avoid using chemicals or fertilizers that could be toxic to humans and animals.
Ensure that you have proper lighting in your garden so you, your family, and your guests can explore the area safe at night.
Lighting does more than increase your visibility in the dark; it also helps to highlight the features that you like the most in your garden. The lighting design can have a huge impact on the aesthetics and ambiance of your healing garden.
Types of plants that would make people happy year-round:
Grow plants you enjoy. Make sure the garden is full of different kinds of plants. Mix up plants and flowers you can eat with those that are just beautiful to look at or smell.
Add in plants and trees that provide shade. Make sure to add some plants that can survive all year so that the garden can be used during all seasons.
Need for privacy and quiet:
Look for ways to create sections where you can relax without feeling like others are staring. Use tall grasses, shrubs, curtains, fencing, and/or pieces of cloth to create areas where you can sit and relax or think.
Next steps in creating a healing garden at home:
Creating a healing and therapy garden at home does not have to be difficult or expensive. There are so many resources online and in your community to help you build this special type of garden.
If you like the idea but aren’t sure you can or want to commit to a large project, start small. Set up a few pots or planters with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Add some other features you find relaxing like wind chimes or a small tabletop fountain.
If you enjoy gardening and have the time and space, you may want to create a larger garden.
Here are a few steps to help you get started in creating your own healing garden:
Visit therapy gardens in your community.
Reach out to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and other treatment programs. Their staff may be happy to give you a tour, speak with you about what they did to build their garden, and make some recommendations.
The Therapeutic Landscapes Network has a free, online directory of hospitals and programs with therapy and healing gardens.
Consult with a gardening expert
Consider consulting with a gardening expert who specializes in designing healing gardens. They may have ideas about how to set up the garden based on your needs, property, and/or living situation.
Reach out to local gardening clubs and centers.
These experienced gardeners can help you pick plants, trees, and flowers that fit your local weather and soil as well as your budget.
Nature is so very healing. Let’s enjoy this little world:
Your healing garden doesn’t have to be perfect. Like nature, let it change, grow, and evolve over time. You’ll also want to make changes as you learn more about what you want and need.
No matter how you start, a healing garden can help you and your loved ones tackle the physical and emotional stressors of modern life.
Bio: Dr. Ronit Levy is a clinical psychologist specializing in helping high achieving teens and adults struggling with anxiety due to Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, chronic illness, and life events. She is also director of Bucks County Anxiety Center in Newtown, PA.