The Healing Garden, Build and Green Magazine

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  • Please contact Donna Rodman if you wish to have a copy of the original article as Build & Green Magazine tragically is no longer in publication.  The article was published in March, 1997.

by Donna M. Rodman, Dipl. Nursing, B.A., CTech, M.L.A.

I gratefully acknowledge interviews with and the contributions of Mr. Patrick Mooney and Ms. Lois Lawrie in the writing of this article.

The restorative garden is among many varieties of gardens which incorporate human scale and functional, beautiful landscapes, as well as address the physical, psychological, emotional and social needs of visitors and participants.

Such gardens were found in medieval courtyards and were part of the Christian charitable foundations attached to hospitals and monasteries nursing the unwell person.  The evolution of the paradise garden caused the demise of the restorative garden, and the courtyards and open spaces within and surrounding the hospitals of renaissance and reformation Europe were left as anomalies of local wealth and local architectural tradition.

With a few exceptions, from then on restorative gardens were excluded from health care facility design.  Johns Hopkins Hospital (circa 1875) became known because of its pavilion style, accompanying gardens, sun decks, and sun roofs.  It also included an enclosed Victorian garden.

The minimizing of garden spaces continued while at the same time the development of horticultural therapy grew for the treatment of many patients.  Horticultural therapy, the active involvement with plant materials and gardening within an integrated clinical program, became a sub-specialty of occupational therapy.  The professionalization of horticultural therapy appeared in 1992.

Restorative Experience

Restoration includes: development of independence, stabilization of emotions, reduced tension, enrichment, satisfaction and pride, relief from boredom, aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, sensory stimulation, learning of form and size, sense of open space, enjoyment, excitement about growth, and finally, the comprehension of the vastness of the environment.

Each one of us has unique abilities to read and find our way through our environment.  Theories of holistic environmental knowing include: object perception— the natural but often unfulfilled ability of the body to sense nearby objects, obstacles and danger — and body subject — the natural ability of the body to move with neither conscious awareness nor effort.  The body is always actively reacting and collecting information such as physical presence, air pressure, memory of landmarks and cues.  With practice we can develop enhanced sensations, reduced distraction, elevated consciousness and perception.

The garden provides a benevolent setting in which a person can take the first steps toward confidence.  Plants take away anxiety and tension of the immediate and show us that there are long, enduring patterns in life, peacefulness and tranquility.  This offers a sense of control which in some cases, people with disabilities, seniors and women at risk, do not feel they have.  Gardening allows for escape.  The garden can give a purposeful, human scale activity which is home-like and can provide a variety of experiences.  The opportunity for self-expression and personalization is present and it provides the motivation for physical exercise, social interaction and networking with other gardeners.

Gardening is a subjective personal involvement and personal response to natural elements.  The human spirit is invested in the garden.  Beyond visual observation, the physical participation as a gardener, the growing and caring for plants, are all nurturing activities.  The gardener develops a sensitivity to the needs of the plants, responding to distress or flourishment of growth, just as caring for others is a basic quality of being human.

For the person with a disability or a senior citizen, the world of gardening serves as an extension of oneself.   This is particularly true for a person who lives a dislocated life inside an apartment or in a confined space.  There is a strong rehabilitative effect of self-esteem with gardening providing control in an environment where physical and attitude barriers may exist.

Implementing the Restorative Experience

A garden should stimulate all senses including taste and encourage the visitor to wander, browse, and experience freedom of space with delight.  By placing an emphasis on strong textural characteristics and fragrant plants, a visitor to a garden experiences a multitude of sensations.

The garden will have greater success if it stimulates an excitement for gardening, broadens one’s knowledge of the plant kingdom and the natural environment, aides in the development of observational powers and finally, provides a learning area.  An ideal restorative garden will include the following features:

  • Two or three scents in each section
  • Fragrances that change with the seasons
  • To aid in orientation, four different quadrants off a central axis enabling one to recognize the corners
  • Small spaces that concentrate the fragrances
  • A bench that enables one to rest and absorb the garden, even better if the bench has a broad armrest so there is space for a cup or plate
  • Irregular landmarks that help provide recognizable sequences of objects and memory to identify space
  • Raised beds at a height of 30 cm (12") to 43 cm (17") for convenience of reach and touch
  • Textural plants, from the seedling to the rose petal, providing sensations of interest to all. 
  • Spiked plants and trees with different barks are interesting to touch
  • For safety, no overhead or low lying branches in the path of travel, and a clear height of 198 cm (6'-6")
  • Fun, e.g. the adventure of stepping stones over a shallow pond

Some ideas derived from the Islamic (Moorish) Gardens of Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries, lend themselves to making the garden experience pleasurable.

  • Pebbled paving with herringbone and weave patterns. Patterns can be used aesthetically for the tactile designation of a type of garden feature, an interruption or change for finding one’s way, or a hazardous feature
  • Use of fragrant fruit trees and shrubs such as the Honeysuckle, Jasmine, Lemon Balm, Winter Honeysuckle, and Magnolia
  • Small fountains giving lighter, gentler sound patterns rather than large noisy ones, refine the sense of sound within a garden, each fountain giving a different sound depending on droplet size and receiving surface. The staircase to the North of the Mirado in the Generalife uses water intertwined in the handrail. Experiment with water sound.
  • A small hand basin near the fragrance garden would be ideal in order to wash off the scent of the plants after tactile/textural exploration.
  • Shallow pools of 5 cm (2") in depth with stepping stones. Pools can be sheltered so that the water does not ripple and the pool appears to be deeper by illusion.

Our responses to our environment can vary with our perception of that environment and the enhancement of alternate senses produces very rich and pleasurable experiences. Gardens can add to that experience safely and memorably so that an impression stays within the garden visitor. The next time there is an encounter with a similar environment, the past experience will initiate a pleasant memory and enhance the new experience. While economics have dictated a decline in the development of restorative gardens, history and humanity have sustained a continuing thread of existence of such gardens. They may exist in one’s backyard, an apartment balcony or in an institutional or nature setting. Their impact will depend on thoughtfulness and sensitivity in their creation.

Some books worth reading include:

THE ABLE GARDENER, by Kathleen Yoemans, 1992, soft cover: $16.95 ISBN 0-88266-789-0, Storey Communications, Inc. Formerly a nurse and still an avid gardener, Kathleen has a family member who uses a wheelchair.

THE ENABLING GARDEN: CREATING BARRIER-FREE GARDENS, by Gene Rothert, 1994, soft cover. $13.94 ISBN#0-87833-847-0, Taylor Publishing Company. Gene Rothert is the Manager of Urban Horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He is highly regarded in both the horticultural community as well as in the community of people with disabilities.

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