Thursday, October 28, 2010

Healing Gardens

When you hear the term "healing garden," what image comes to mind? If all you can imagine is a garden devoted to medicinal plants, consider this post an invitation to expand your definition.

In the broadest sense, all gardens are healing gardens. Working in a garden, strolling through one, looking out a window into a garden - all have a calming, restorative effect on us regardless of what is planted there. Beyond that, gardens can be designed for specific purposes and healing effects. In the future, I plan to write expanded posts on some of these individually. For now, here are some general categories for you to consider.

Pleasure Gardens. These gardens exist for one reason: to please the senses. They invite you to stop, rest and take in their beauty. They are an antidote to the high-stress, always-on, busyness of modern life. They bring the Feminine essence of "being" to balance the Masculine essence of "doing" in our world. A pleasure garden can be as simple as a single plant in a container that gives a person joy to behold. And it can consist of many elements including elaborate plantings, comfortable seating, and the sight and sounds of water. All that matters is the pleasure that the garden brings.

Renovated Gardens. Most of the time when I think of healing gardens, I think of what gardens can give to us. But with renovation, it's all about us giving back to, and thus healing, the garden. I can't tell you how many times clients have told me that they didn't want to put money or effort into a certain, neglected part of their yard. "We don't like that spot and won't use it anyway," they say. I suggest that they might if the space was more functional and something they could enjoy. Sure enough, with some thoughtful renovation, those neglected areas often become the family's favorite outdoor room.

Renovation typically involves restoring poor soil or paved-over "dead" zones and bringing them back to life. I'll never have a more dramatic "before and after" in my design career than the sunken garden we created in a space once occupied by a concrete, bunker-like structure. And anyone who has visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, has seen what can be done with a used-up quarry.

Medicinal Gardens. The science of pharmacology has its roots, literally, in the study of plant compounds and their effects on the human body. Relatives of these ruffly opium poppies, shown on the left, gave rise to an entire class of drugs, many of which are now produced synthetically, used to relieve pain. I'm not suggesting that you grow opium poppies. (I'm told that you would have to harvest acres of these seed capsules to get enough opium-laden latex to matter.) Just reminding you that the plant-medicine connection is a venerable one.

As a further example, herbs have been cultivated, for thousands of years, in kitchen, convent and monastery gardens to be used to heal the sick. That tradition continues today as gardeners grow mint, basil, chives, chamomile, thyme and many other herbs, to use in cooking and making tea. As Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine."

To the category of medicinal gardens, I would add Therapeutic Gardens. In recent years, the value of gardens in the treatment of seriously ill patients has been recognized. Various studies have shown that patients who have a view into a garden recover more quickly, require less pain medication and, in the case of surgeries, have fewer post-op infections.

Hands-on therapeutic gardens are being used in facilities for people who are chronically ill. Raised beds and specialized tools make it possible for people in wheelchairs to have the experience of gardening. Spending that time in the garden has proven to slow the progress of disease and give patients a greater sense of well being.

Meditation Gardens. The health benefits of meditation have been well documented. And where better to practice meditation than in outdoor settings that are conducive to suspending the chatter that goes on in our heads? These places can be as informal as sitting under a big tree and staring out over water and as formal as a labyrinth designed for walking meditation.

Chinese and Japanese gardens are also popular places for meditation. (A scene from the Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, is shown here.) Their clean, uncluttered lines and simple planting plans evoke a sense of peace. These gardens also feature small, somewhat hidden spaces, that allow the visitor some quiet and privacy.

Community Gardens. Here in Seattle, perhaps the best known type of community garden is the P-Patch. Here people who have no place for a garden can rent a small plot and grow vegetables and flowers. Over the years, these p-patches have produced much more than food for the table. Friendships have been made, gardening tips exchanged and a sense of belonging to a community has been created. The healing effect is at least two-fold: gardeners benefit from the experience of gardening and connecting with the earth. And there is an additional healing effect that comes from building connections with other human beings.

Memorial Gardens. These gardens offer a place of comfort for those touched by sorrow or tragedy. These can be small and very personal; I've had clients who have incorporated the ashes of loved ones into certain garden beds. When my clients work in that part of the garden, they feel like their loved one is there with them, which of course is true. And there are gardeners with memorial plants in their gardens: roses, peonies, hydrangeas, etc. that belonged to their mothers and favorite aunties. When those plants bloom each year, their flowers mean far more than any others in the garden.

On the other hand, memorial gardens can be very large and carry symbolism for an entire nation. An example is the beautiful and moving Oklahoma City National Memorial, which commemorates the April, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
The mission statement for this memorial states: "We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity."
Take a virtual tour of this very moving memorial here.

I hope this overview of various healing gardens has given you a new way to look at gardens of all kinds. We humans need gardens. They, quite literally, ground us. They give us joy, pleasure, satisfaction and comfort. If you'd like to read more, I recommend "Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being," by Esther M. Sternberg, MD.