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Published in 2001 Lifestyles Magazine

Healing Gardens

by Patricia Fry

What environment do you crave when life becomes a bit overwhelming? Many of us, when we feel upset, stressed or even despondent, seek out a quiet spot in nature. We might walk to the park or take a drive to the beach or mountains or even go sit in our own backyard. Why? Because we feel a greater sense of serenity and well-being in a natural setting. We tend to relax when we're surrounded by nature and a relaxed state is the perfect environment to experience the healing of body, mind and spirit.

Roger Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Services at Texas A&M University, has collected some important data about the effects of a natural environment on human health during a research project some years ago. His study involved several gall bladder surgery patients.

"They had identical rooms," says Ulrich. "The only difference was the view from their windows." What Ulrich discovered was that the patients who had a view of trees, flowers and shrubbery, had fewer complications, needed less medication and had a shorter hospital stay than those who looked out at a block wall.

In another, less formal study, visitors to a botanical garden submitted to a test. These guests, upon leaving the garden that day, registered lower blood pressure and heart rate than when they entered.

Scientists are just starting to pay attention to the relationship between humans and nature. Chances are, they'll soon prove what gardeners have known for centuries:

  • Viewing or working in a garden setting is soothing.
  • Activities such as pulling weeds, raking and deadheading help relieve tension.
  • There's a therapeutic quality to tending a garden.
  • Our creative and nurturing cravings are satisfied through gardening.

There is so much evidence reflecting the health benefits of a natural setting that more and more U.S. hospitals are providing garden areas for patients and their families. It might be a patio ringed by potted plants where family members can regroup, meditate or pray. Some medical institutions have expansive lawns with trees, flowers and secluded sitting areas for patients and their families. And still others, like the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Center in New York, provide gardening as therapy for their patients. The Glass Garden at Rusk is a 1700 square-foot greenhouse where they offer horticultural therapy programs for their patients. According to Nancy Chambers, director of the therapy program, the garden is also a place of serenity and comfort for hospital staff and the patients' family members.

Whether you already know the joy and comfort in your home garden or you are seeking a place to turn when you feel stressed or in need of solace, here are some ideas for turning your garden into a healing garden.

Plant a memory garden. What are your favorite plants? Most likely, you'll list plants related to your childhood. I grow sweet peas every year because I remember my grandmother growing them. When I married and set up housekeeping, she would bring me bouquets of sweet peas throughout the spring and summer months. I also grow pansies because Grandma loved them in her garden.

My mother planted a syringa because, as she says, "I remember picking flowers from a syringa in our yard when I was a girl and wearing them in my hair." By the way, syringa means memory in Victorian flower language.

Does the sound of tall bamboo rustling in the breeze bring back pleasant memories for you? Maybe the scent of geraniums or honeysuckle is comforting because it's something you recall from childhood or a special time in your adult life.

Surround yourself with plants that bring a smile to your face and calm to your psyche and you have taken the first step in creating a healing garden.

Keep it simple. Gardens definitely evoke emotions, but guilt shouldn't be one of them. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by your gardening project. Plan a garden that is a pleasure to manage instead of an added pressure in your life. How do you know when you're getting in over your head?

  • When your garden becomes more work than fun.
  • When a glance out the window makes you wince rather than smile.
  • When you feel inadequate as a gardener.
  • When a walk in your garden fills you with "shoulds" instead of joy—"I should pull those weeds, rake those leaves, prune the shrubs, feed the roses?"

If you have unlimited time and enjoy caring for a large garden, go for it. But if time and even money are issues, you can still create a lovely garden area without breaking the bank or your back. Here are some ideas:

  1. Start plants from seeds and cuttings taken from neighbors' and friends' yards.
  2. Buy plants on sale.
  3. Plant things that are appropriate to your climate, that are showy and that don't require a lot of care.
  4. Choose plants that are similar in their care requirements so you don't have to continue learning about new plants.
  5. Use ground cover to fill in and cut down on maintenance as well as gravel, decorative rock, bark and so forth.

Create your personal garden space. Maybe you don't have time to tend the sort of garden you want. But you can still enjoy the illusion of a full, rich garden in an alcove or hideaway. Many busy men and women today are creating contemplation or meditation areas in a corner of their yard.

First, choose your favorite spot. Plant fast-growing trees, shrubs or reeds or put up a trellis, an old wooden gate or an equally interesting backdrop. Plant the things you love and that will thrive in this environment. Add a hammock or meditation bench and some outdoor artwork and you have a wonderful niche to enjoy whenever you need to get away.

Here are some additional ideas for establishing a garden that you, your family and friends can enjoy.

Stimulate your senses. "You're in a healing environment if two or more of your senses are heightened," says Christy Ten Eyck, landscape artist who has a practice in Arizona. And she suggests appealing to all of your senses including fragrance and sound.

Also use plants in various shapes, sizes and textures to appeal to your sense of sight and touch.

Create a water feature. Water has numerous purposes in a garden. The sound of water is calming and pleasant. It has a cooling affect in the summer and it can help to muffle neighborhood noise. Water also attracts wildlife such as butterflies and birds.

A water feature doesn't have to be elaborate. It might be just a matter of buying a pump and building around it. Consider using old whiskey barrels, brass urns or just bring in a couple of bird baths, for example.

Use art. Make your garden fun by incorporating some of your favorite art objects into your design. Place decorative birdhouses and feeders, gazing balls, cement animal or cherub figures amongst your plants. Use an old barn door or window frame to decorate your patio area. Design a mosaic, beach glass or pebble wall hanging, table or bird bath for a special spot in your garden.

More and more landscape artists are helping their clients to break their garden area in to a series of garden rooms. Art can greatly enhance these intimate areas.

Add creative ground work. Every square inch of your yard doesn't have to be planted in order to be attractive. Here are a few ideas for problem areas:

  • Design a mock riverbed. Dig out the dirt slightly and line the area with decorative rocks or pebbles. Add a small bridge.
  • Raise dirt mounds and decorate them with medium-sized rocks and lavender plants.
  • Build a deck or seating area around a tree.
  • Lay rip rap or broken pieces of cement in a problem spot. Fill the spaces between the cement pieces with gravel. We recently did this over an old septic tank that is so close to the surface that nothing will grow there. We also created a patio effect in the middle of our front lawn where it's so densely shaded by an old oak tree that grass simply won't grow there.

Attract wildlife. If you want butterflies or ladybugs to visit your garden, plant a butterfly bush (buddleia), zinnias, salvia, hibiscus and white alyssum. For caterpillars, plant fennel and parsley. If you live where there are wild rabbits, they will probably visit whether you want them to or not. You can entice them by planting lettuce, cabbage and other edibles. Also make sure to have plenty of good hiding places for the bunnies to scamper should something startle them.

The edible garden. There are many levels of healing potential in the backyard garden. One is through the use of edible and medicinal plants. Plant an herb garden including rosemary, peppermint, chamomile, sage, basil, corriander and anise, for example. I once grew feverfew so I would have it available for headaches. Many gardeners grow herbs in large pots just outside their kitchen door.

You can also enjoy tomatoes, squash, snow peas, green beans, corn, onions and so forth from your garden. Have fun with your veggie garden. Plant green pole beans with your corn so the beans can use the corn stalks for support. Grow pumpkins and sun flowers in your front yard for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. Grow a corn stalk maze or playhouse for the kids this summer.

Any garden with plants and trees is already a healing garden. Follow some of these suggestions, however, and the healing benefits of your garden experience will greatly increase.

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