As interest in outdoor spaces for a therapy garden that can help heal and satisfy physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. This has expanded from hospitals to residential neighborhoods. Want to create one? This article helps you to understand the mix of features that make up these restful, inspirational oases.
Benefits of a Therapy Garden
Outdoor living can add enormous joy to homeowners’ lives, expand usable square footage, and provide a boost when marketing a house for resale. But with more and more Americans focused on wellness, a new gardening niche is emerging… gardens created for therapy.
The idea of a therapeutic garden offering refuge after an illness or trauma—or a space to meditate, de-stress, and connect with one’s spiritual self—is hardly new. During the Middle Ages, monastery hospitals developed therapy gardens. And for centuries Japanese people have been using Zen rock gardens as sacred places to perform their daily rituals.
In the last few decades, hospitals, memory-care centers, and cancer clinics have taken the lead in constructing gardens that incorporate different features to serve patients’ specific healing needs.
Owners of businesses outside the health care industry concerned about workplace stress soon followed suit. Landscape Architects have designed many on-site gardens where employees at high-tech companies can unwind.
As more research emerged that nature can boost healthfulness, the idea of having a therapy garden at home has gained momentum. How they look, smell, sound, and feel, and what they’re called varies. This goes beyond the umbrella “therapy” term—healing, meditative, spiritual, sensory, sanctuary, or pain management. They are varied to reflect specific goals.
A universal goal unites them, according to Carole Aine Langrall, a Baltimore and Santa Fe–based master gardener. She has designed many therapy gardens, including one for herself. She says, “Frustration and fear can be replaced by tranquility and hope.”
These therapy gardens aren’t just for those seeking relief. “Caregivers may find it helpful to escape outside for a few minutes to relieve their stress,” Langrall adds.
With interest in therapy gardens growing, it’s important that you understand what elements to incorporate. These include plants, water, hardscape, and architectural features.
Decide on Size, Care, and Location
Therapy gardens need not be large. In fact, a small footprint can make them easier and less costly to tend. Many therapy gardens are built in secluded places, away from a house and neighbors, or at a different elevation.
The garden can be created almost anywhere on a property. The terrain, a homeowner’s wish for privacy, and the amount of light needed for the desired plantings will help determine the best spot.
Some prefer to locate them in the open for better views, to be social, or because of cultural traditions. Many families are very inclusive and want all members of a family to have a space. While other groups want quieter gardens. Have different strategies to address the different needs of the owners.
Accessibility is also an important feature in site selection. It’s important to consider universal design principles for those with mobility issues or who want to age in place.
Consider the Senses
Therapy gardens tend to be most successful when they have features that appeal to at least one of the senses all year round. However, smell is one sense that varies quite a bit depending on the client’s needs. Gardens with fragrant plants such as lilacs have been found to trigger sweet memories for those with dementia and brain injuries.
“Smell is one of the last senses to go,” says Naomi Sachs, founding director of Cornell University’s Therapeutic Landscapes Network. One garden at the Marianjoy Integrative Pain Center at Northwestern Medicine outside Chicago has plants that stimulate the olfactory system. Among those are lavender, lemon verbena, and scented geraniums.
Conversely, gardens for those undergoing chemotherapy usually are designed without scents. Many cancer treatments make patients highly sensitive to smell and easily nauseated.
Too much light can be unsettling. Those going through any kind of chemotherapy find it affects their eyes. Nature can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, balance circadian rhythms, and increase vitamin D absorption.
Seeing greenery is known to speed up recovery from surgery. It can be a positive distraction that takes people’s minds off their illness. Families and patients enjoy seeing greenery flourish through the windows and when outdoors. It helps them remember that life goes on as the patients recover.
Choose a Few Essential Elements
When planning their own garden, homeowners should be selective and make decisions based on how much maintenance they want to undertake or pay to have done. Too many features, or the wrong kind, may add stress. And that’s the opposite intention of these gardens.
1. Plants and herbs. In most gardens, it’s best to seek out a variety of heights, textures, and colors. If privacy and quiet are desired, evergreens like spruces or a “wall” of noninvasive bamboo may be a good choice.
Landscape designers use lilacs, not just for their fragrance, but because they can be grouped to create a privacy hedge. Be aware that too many plant walls can create a dark, claustrophobic space.
Color may contribute to healing, too. Blue is a good universal choice because most find it calming. Also those with cataracts find it easier to see bolder colors rather than pastel hues.
Butterfly bushes do double duty by displaying colorful flowers and attracting butterflies. But be sure to choose a seedless or low-fertility variety, as the plants are considered invasive in some areas. Other plants that attract pollinators include cosmos, foxgloves, and cone varieties.
Certain herbs have a symbolic connection and can offer freshness in favorite recipes and a medicinal effect. Chamomile is one standout example of this type. It is equated with comfort, but is also thought to work as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory agent, and tissue regenerator.
Tomatoes and leafy greens also help fight inflammation. Herbs can be seeped in water to flavor what can be a healthy alternative to soda. Planting in raised beds or along walls also is smart. People don’t have to bend and reach to access them.
For those wanting something tactile, many therapy gardens feature fuzzy, soft lamb’s ear. Some of these have the additional benefit of bearing a cute name which is fun for children.
2. Rocks, hardscape, and paths. Rocks artfully arranged in their own grouping or along paths are another key element. Their long association with Zen and “dry landscape” gardens make them desirable. Smaller pebbles add a pleasant crunching sound for those who want an auditory component. However, they can be tough to traverse. Concrete pavers, without gaps, might be a safer choice.
For those with dementia, a path should always be laid out in a circle that winds around to the starting point. When a path comes to a dead end, that may cause confusion about where to go next, she adds.
3. Audible charms. Wind chimes may please some; others, such as neighbors, may find them annoying. Homeowners need to be thoughtful about how they incorporate them. A mass of tall decorative grasses can add soft rustling noise as a less intrusive sonic alternative.
A small stream can add tranquil sights and sounds. Home owners may want to avoid a pond or babbling brook because of the cost and lack of space.
Alternatively, a soaking tub can offer a source of calm and a way to ease aches and pains. Landscape designers have used a recirculating fountain to add trickling noises. These do not waste water and the fountain also drowns out street traffic.
Song birds and bees add wonderful music to the air too. Use plants, berries, and flowers to attract them. Water in baths plus feeders with food will likely bring more to your garden. Wireless speakers also make it easy to bring music into a garden.
4. Seating and other accessories. Furniture can provide a comfortable place to sit and savor a view. Your choice of what type should be made carefully with the prime users in mind.
Elderly people or those with health problems may need seats with arms, backs, and cushions.
Outdoor rugs add color and pattern and can become a soft place to perform yoga or meditate. Use accessories to set the tone. Statues help improve the chi energy in a garden and remind us to stay in the present.
For those with more space, a simple structure such as a small wooden bridge can work. This can be a part of a physical therapy program to improve balance and coordination.
5. Light and fire. Low-voltage, energy-efficient illumination for the outdoors is now easy to install, even without an electrician. It can be placed along paths, in grass, water features, and trees to extend garden use past dusk.
Lighting also helps homeowners enjoy their gardens from afar by spotlighting different garden focal points. Also lights can be enjoyed during inclement weather or when otherwise unable to venture out.
Real flames and light can flicker safely in gas-fired tiki-style torches or a fire pit to expand a garden’s use into evening. Fire offers a mental health benefit since it tends to call people together to sit and linger. This is especially helpful for those feeling isolated.
Garden is a Marketing Tool When Selling Your Home
Most buyers probably don’t have a therapy garden on their “must have” list. But when they see one it may pique their interest. It definitely enhances appeal and increases the perceived living space. This is because so many homes in our area have zero lot lines. To foster interest, here are three useful steps:
- Look at several photographers’ portfolios and hire the one who knows best how to photograph a garden. Highlight its most attractive features and capture the best angles,
- Describe what’s in the garden and the “why” of the therapy garden in your marketing materials.
- Ask an enticing question: “Are you looking for a private space for meditation and relaxation?”
Resources to Tap for More Information
- Check out our local Botanical Garden of Palm Beach County for inspiration. It offers several areas considered therapy gardens, plus they have educational events each month.
- Healing Landscapes is a site that lists landscape designers who can help create the right kind of home therapy garden for specific needs. Simply searching the web for “therapeutic” or “meditation” gardens and your local area to find designers who can help.
- The American Horticultural Society lists master gardeners and other information such as how to plant pollinator gardens.
- Several useful books include Garden Retreat: Creating an Outdoor Sanctuary by Barbara Blossom Ashmun (Chronicle Books, 2000); Therapeutic Landscapes by Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi Sachs (Wiley, 2013); Gardeners’ World: The Healing Garden by Gay Search (BBC Books, 2001); Nature Fix by Florence Williams (W.W. Norton & Co., 2017); and Gardens for the Soul by Pamela Woods (Conran Octopus, 2002).
- Get inspiration from hospitals or wellness centers in your area. Ask if they have therapy gardens that the public can view. Often a hospital will plant trees, boulders, paths, and water features on outdoor spaces.
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