Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles


Healing gardens nurture and replenish us

June 25, 2007
Marilyn Geary

by Marilyn Geary

Most gardeners will say that no matter how hard or long they labor, working in their gardens relaxes them. Even a few minutes pulling weeds can be a refreshing antidote to the stresses of modern life. The other night I experienced that rejuvenation in a remarkable way, when after a long day of digging in the garden, I dreamt that I was lying on my back surrounded by rich, loamy compost. The soft, dark soil rooted me deeply in the comforting earth.
That dream caused me to wonder at the enormous power of nature to heal our psyches. Gardens have long been known for their ability to nurture and replenish. In medieval times, cloister gardens bolstered the spirits of monks, nuns, and the patients in their care. Japanese Zen gardens induce meditation through simplicity and order. Classical Persian walled gardens were places of hope and vitality in stark desert surroundings. The Persian word for “enclosed space” was pairi-daeza, a term that came to mean a garden of Eden or paradise on earth. Our custom of bringing flowers to the sick stems from our understanding of nature’s healing powers.
Yet despite our knowledge of nature’s capacity to promote well being, and because of the advances in science in the mid-twentieth century, high-tech medical solutions took primacy over natural healing influences. Many hospitals were designed as massive, sterile boxes, built for industrial-like efficiency.
More recently, scientists have begun to acknowledge the value of gardens for healing. Dr. Roger Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A & M University, has shown in his studies that a significant reduction in patient anxiety by the participants just looking at pictures of nature. In a ten-year study comparing patients who had views of brick walls versus trees, the patients who looked out at nature had shorter hospital stays, took fewer painkillers, and made fewer complaints to nurses.
Healing gardens are now becoming regular features of hospitals and other health settings. Cancer patients at Marin General’s Oncology Department can take respite in the Meditation Garden, a small, serene sanctuary with green tree ferns, a flowing fountain of water, and baby tears nestled in rocky crags. This garden was designed by Topher Delaney, herself a cancer survivor. Devoting her life to creating healing gardens, Delaney also designed and donated the Carolyn S. Stolman Healing Garden at the Avon Comprehensive Breast Care Center at San Francisco General Hospital. Visitors may view the welcoming garden from nearly every room in the center.
You might ask, “Isn’t every garden a healing garden?” All gardens have the potential to nourish and replenish us, but according to Mara Eckerling, in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, a healing garden is “a garden in a healing setting designed to make people feel better.”
Designers have created specialized gardens targeted to particular visitors. The Portland Memory Garden, for example, is designed to heighten and stimulate memory in Alzheimer patients. The Garden of Fragrance in the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum enables visitors with visual impairments to connect with nature through touch and smell.
Active healing gardens allow patients to care for the garden while the garden nurtures them. The Marin Brain Injury Network garden in Larkspur provides a place for people with acquired brain injuries to water, plant seeds, thin and repot seedlings, compost and perform other gardening activities. Both raised and keyhole beds, along with well-placed shelving accommodate various disabilities, both visual and ambulatory, so that the gardeners can easily reach plants and tools. Quin Ellis, instructor in the Environmental Landscape Departmentat nearby College of Marin, helped create the garden with his students and uses it as a classroom.
Following the design principles for healing gardens, you can create your own garden that will relieve the stresses of daily life. Keep the layout simple, possibly a circle to represent the circle of life or a square representing universal order. Moveable furniture provides a variety of places to sit and walk, sunny and shady, private and open.
A place where people can engage with all of their senses is very nourishing, so select plants for a variety of textures, scents, and colors. Lots of greenery is important since we are heartened by lush green life. Cool colors, violets, blues, and greens, promote serenity and reflection.
You might choose plants for their symbolic or medicinal properties. For the original Healing Garden at Marin General Hospital’s Cancer Center, Topher Delaney selected plants and flowers known for their healing abilities, including plants used to make cancer medicines. For instance, the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, formerly Vinca rosea, contains alkaloids used to create the anti-cancer drugs vinblastine and vincristine. The drug podophyllin is made from Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the may apple.
Native plants with medicinal qualities include yarrow, Achillea millefolium; yerba mansa, Anemopsis californica, alum root, Heuchera species; wild ginger, Asarum caudatum;hedge nettle, Stachys chamissonis; and the California lilac, Ceanothus species.
Nature’s elements are very powerful symbols of life and death. Seasonal changes in the garden remind us that we all share in nature’s cycles. Water is a fluid symbol of life, its sound calming and refreshing. Water also soothes visually, as light reflects on its surface. Stone resonates with longevity and permanence. Natural wood features remind us of the archetypal tree, symbol of growth and wisdom. Use these elements in your garden to draw on nature’s power to renew and sustain us.

More information on healing gardens is available at the Therapeutic Landscapes Resource Center, http://www.healinglandscapes.org

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