When Haig Dinihanian arrived at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Ore., he expected to convalesce from a balance disorder the traditional way, with doctors and nurses, medications and treatments. But he didn't anticipate a recovery that also included daily strolls in the hospital's state-of-the-art garden, a virtual Eden with 150 plant varieties, stable pathways and benches placed every 30 feet for easy sitting opportunities."It was a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the day; you could work in the flowers or tend vegetables if you wanted," he recalls. "It helped me get my mind off my problems."
Like Haig, patients at hospitals and other healthcare facilities across the country are enjoying the benefits of "healing gardens," outdoor spaces designed to help improve mobility, ease depression and get muscles working while planting, watering and weeding.
"There's a big emotional benefit to nurturing a living thing," says Teresia Hazen, a nationally recognized horticultural therapist. "You know the tomato needs you, and you need the tomato."
The health benefits of the outdoors are well known—sunshine's vitamin D can help ward off ailments ranging from osteoporosis to influenza—but using gardens as recovery tools is a relatively new trend. In fact, virtually all of the healing gardens now found at healthcare facilities nationwide have been installed in the last 15 years, says Hazen, who oversees the nine healing gardens in the Portland-area Legacy Health System. Backing the movement is a wealth of research on the therapeutic aspects of spending time in gardens. In fact, one 2007 study found that relaxing in gardens helped curb depression in older adults just as well as art therapy, a known antidote to depression among seniors.
Healing gardens are typically designed with the needs of ill or aging visitors in mind, and in some cases, for groups with specific needs such as individuals with Alzheimer's, burn center patients, psychiatric patients or children. A rehabilitation garden, for instance, may include areas where a person learning to walk again or use a wheelchair can practice on different surfaces and in gently sloped areas; a garden for dementia patients might be stocked with fragrant herbs to trigger memories of the past. But no matter who healing gardens are meant for, Hazen notes, they're an excellent resource for anyone coping with stress.
"Seeing flowers, touching plant material and listening to birds engages more than one sense at a time, and neurologists have proven that this stimulates our brains in ways that make us feel better," says Naomi Sachs, a landscape designer and founder/director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. "And the positive effect can be felt in your own backyard, with the addition of a few key safety and comfort features and the right plant material. "It's really all about stimulating the senses," Sachs says. To prepare for creating your own healing garden, "visit botanical gardens, arboretums and parks and be in tune with what kind of spaces make you feel good. Often you don't know until you're in that space."
Click here for tips on creating your own healing garden.