Healing Gardens

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Updated: August 11, 2020

In these troubled times we all need less anxiety and stress on a daily basis. Relief of stress helps to bolster our immune system and stimulate the body’s natural healing ability. Natural distractions such as plants, flowers and water decrease stress levels. Trees not only provide shade, but also give people a sense of strength and protection.

Exercise has many beneficial effects on both physical and mental health. Apart from the physical benefits, even mild exercise elevates mood. There is also evidence that the more social support a person receives from family and friends when isolated, the better they cope. That is why the use of the application Zoom has exploded worldwide because we all want to stay connected; albeit online.

The more we are engaged with the environment through our senses, the lower the rates of anxiety, respiration rate, brain activity and blood pressure, and the less we are aware of pain from injury. It’s also a marvellous aid to assist in recovery from depression.

The idea that nature has a soothing, restorative effect is nothing new – from medieval monastic infirmary gardens to the landscaped grounds of nineteenth-century mental asylums, enlightened carers have recognised that access to the outdoors has a salutary effect on one’s health.

Enter the Healing Garden.

It provides a setting where we can be in sunlight, which is especially important for the creation of Vitamin D, the promotion of healthy bones and the  establishment of regular circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. A healing garden provides a multi- sensory experience with colourful flowers, varying shades and textures of green, the sights and sounds of water, and elements that attract birds and butterflies and many fragrances. Having a good variety of plant materials in the garden allows for sensory stimulation (fragrance, touch, vision, and hearing). Herb borders are a perfect way for us to enjoy the smells of a garden as we stroll.

Although we are “all in this together” we still need a little solitude once in a while. This can be especially challenging for families. Therefore, when designing your next healing garden, consider incorporating spaces for both group and solitary occupancy.

By providing a variety of spaces – some private and some open, some sunny, some shady, some with background sounds, some without; we are given choices, thus providing an increased sense of control, which also leads to lower stress levels.

Garden features that attract wildlife such as nesting boxes, hiding places for insects and lizards and bird baths provide habitat to a diversity of wildlife.

The element of water is critical to the design for its psychological, spiritual and physical effects. A waterfall feature provides the soothing sight and sound of water or a misting spray system of water in summer is a delight on the skin.

The creative use of colour and lighting (either plant or human-designed light sources) to elicit emotion, comfort and awe should be considered. It also extends the time we can spend in the outdoors.

Fans with their artificial wind and drying effects, and heat sources (such as firepits and gas heaters) should be carefully positioned, with health and safety in mind.

The emphasis on natural features as grounding points such as the use of rocks, wood, natural fences, screens, trellises, wind and sound will help relieve anxiety. Wooden wind chimes will add to the ambience.

Negative factors such as urban noise, smoke and artificial lighting must be reduced in the garden.

TIP: When installing a healing garden in a high traffic area consider using white noise to block it out. Cascading water in volume will do the trick.

Numerous articles show that abstract design is not well tolerated by persons who are ill or stressed, which means abstract art in the garden is inappropriate. Likewise, a garden full of sculptures and structures will not offer the healing benefits of nature.

We should be able to choose to do nothing but relax whilst seated in a quiet, enclosed space; perform light gardening tasks in our vege patch; engage in an online workout routine; or create art pieces using plant materials… all whilst outdoors. By doing so we are providing ourselves with positive distractions.

Gardening can also enhance self-esteem because plants respond to care regardless of who gives it and are non-threatening and non-discriminating.

The outdoor space needs to be a garden, not a paved courtyard – a lush green setting with an optimal ratio of green to hard surfaces of 7:3. Hardscaping is minimal and plant materials dominate the garden because it is through the softening of the landscape that we feel an improvement in our overall sense of wellness.

Children can also benefit from a well- designed healing garden because it incorporates elements to satisfy their educational, mental and physical needs. For example, climbing up a low grassy hill in order to slide down a slide set into the hill, or climbing several steps to get into a sandbox – in both cases exercising arm and leg muscles. Turning a frog-shaped knob to start stream flowing or undoing various bolts and latches in the door of a playhouse encourages fine motor control. Providing slopes, steps, bridges and a range of walking surfaces helps build leg strength, balance and endurance.

Of course these design criteria can be applied to commercial and public spaces we so often get to quote on for construction. Consider being proactive and offering healing garden designs to the many commercial providers in your state.

Australia’s health care sector is a pre- eminent example.

For this type of healing garden we also need to take into consideration visitors, guests (including children) and different cultures in our design. The garden should be fully accessible by everyone to the facility (including wheelchair) and easily seen from public areas such as receptions and waiting rooms. Different facilities will cater to different health issues and so will feature slightly different design elements. The resultant outcomes are the same including shorter post-operative hospital stays. For example, you might include an internal or courtyard healing garden with a higher density of planting for cancer patients because if a patient is sitting there for hours during chemotherapy, they can still at least reflect on a plethora of greenery.

Other facilities may cater more to mental health needs, which have strict guidelines about what can and what should not be used. Facilities serving those with Alzheimer’s disease are recognising that a garden can serve a number of beneficial purposes. It can provide a relaxing locale for staff-led programs in gardening, crafts and memory recall. A wide variety of perennial flowers popular during the youth of many of the patients provide opportunities for experiences of memory- recall led by the staff.

Other sectors of our economy are in recovery mode and under intense pressure.

The welfare of workers is important at any time, but even more so now. That is why more workplaces are beginning to consider the holistic health of their workers and offer bespoke outdoor spaces where employees can get back to nature, but  with all the trappings of the modern office, such as wireless internet, electrical outlets and desks, and/or simply chill and chat comfortably and/or think quietly in isolation about projects and/or collaboratively come together in small working groups.

Many multinational tech  companies like Spotify, Nestle, IBM and Google have experienced the economic benefits of using well designed ‘outdoor offices’ to help employees improve memory and focus, reduce mental fatigue and increase creativity.

A study by the University of Oregon, USA found that simply providing employees with a view of trees and landscape reduced the amount of sick leave they took per year. In essence, the healing garden should soothe the soul and renew the spirit.